IN THE EARLY DECADES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, SS WHITE RULED DENTISTRY LIKE A COLOSSUS. WELL, THAT WAS THEN.
BY LARRY COHEN
OVER THE FIRST HALF of the twentieth century, one company dominated the dental industry: SS White. It manufactured nearly everything, both merchandise and equipment, except film (Eastman Kodak had that one locked up) and artificial teeth (Dentsply was the big player there). SS White was gigantic. Today, it’s a vastly different, much smaller company focused exclusively on cutting instruments. What happened?
SS White’s self-published (and rather self- laudatory) 100th-anniversary book, A Century of Service to Dentistry, released during World War II, offers some hints. Look at this 1944 photo of its management team: a stuffy-looking club of strictly-by-the-book old guys, with not a woman or minority in sight. SS White owned the dental business and was locked into the status quo, so it had no incentive to change or improve. By the 1950s, though, the Federal Trade Commission had broken up its retail division; soon after that, more-innovative companies started to eat SS White’s lunch.
I can’t say I was all that sad watching the mighty topple. As a teenager, I accompanied my father, Ben, to SS White’s towering headquarters in downtown Philadelphia, basically to beg for Benco to become an SS White distributor. It was humiliating. Not once were we given the chance to talk to a real decision maker. I remember one thing very clearly: We passed through a huge room filled with row upon row of middle-aged men, working on stools at high desks straight out of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. As they toiled in their sleeve garters and green eyeshades, I couldn’t help but notice that all the women who were running around delivering and picking up papers seemed barely out of high school. I asked my father why they were all so young. “They don’t pay them enough to keep them,” he instantly replied.
All those old-fashioned executives are today long gone, and that’s a good thing. The demise of former industry giant SS White reinforces one of the most basic rules of business: Get better or get gone. It’s why Benco Dental focuses on driving innovation and welcomes competition: so we learn new things every day and serve our valued customers better