Dr Sharon Marinucci: northern expansion

Sharon Marinucci
Dr Sharon Marinucci has grown a thriving business from “the smallest rooms possible”. Photography: Georgie Lucock

With four practices winning a variety of business awards, Dr Sharon Marinucci reveals her secret ingredient—bringing her team together to support community service work. By Frank Leggett

In 2004, Dr Sharon Marinucci was working at a practice in Coffs Harbour, NSW, whose owner she was in discussion with about buying the business. All was proceeding smoothly and it looked like the transaction was going ahead when the owner suddenly decided not to sell. Dr Marinucci decided to look for other options.

About half an hour away was the small town of Urunga. It hadn’t had a dentist for many years and yet had a large enough population to support one. Dr Marinucci could see a way forward.

“I had no idea if I’d like running a practice so I found the smallest rooms possible and rented those,” she says. “We had a single treatment room that doubled as steri and shared a small waiting room with a physio. I bought the entire contents of a surgery that was closing down in Tasmania and had it all shipped up. The Tassie dentist flew up to show me how to work everything!” That practice was the first Fresh Dental Care.

There was quite a bit of interest in town about the new dentist as it had done without one for so long. On the day she opened, Dr Marinucci saw four patients. Turnover improved quickly and with low overheads the business was soon breaking even. Within 12 months, she was making a profit. From this humble start, Dr Marinucci would start to build a very successful and expansive business. 

“We started out with just a practice manager/receptionist, a dental assistant/receptionist and me. Our team now has close to 70 members,” she says.

Dr Marinucci graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1996. Due to the fact that she had small children and didn’t think she would stay in one place long enough to commit long term, she didn’t take a permanent job for the next eight years. Her partner at that time was a doctor who did a bit of locum work. They moved around the country and while in Darwin, Dr Marinucci started her own locum business.

“I thought what can I do from the beach with a laptop and a mobile phone? So, I set up a dental locum agency,” says Dr Marinucci. “Generally, it was for dentists but we placed the occasional doctor as well. We found positions for local dentists and brought in people from overseas and placed them right across Australia.”

Starting out

While she never intended to make Coffs Harbour her home, the laid-back lifestyle and moderate climate won her over. “Coffs is like Hotel California to me—you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. When I fly into Coffs, the air is usually nicer than wherever I have been. It’s always lovely to come home.”

“If you’re good to patients—and they know it—then they will come back, and they will tell their friends.” 

Dr Sharon Marinucci, founder, Fresh Dental Care

Even though her practice in Urunga was doing well, Dr Marinucci had no intention of working excessively long hours. She had seen too many other dentists burn out doing exactly that.

“In the first year, when we just had the one chair, I would employ a part-time locum dentist and help them get work somewhere else too, such as in the public sector. There was always someone to help me out and I never had to put in overly long days. Then the dentist I used to work for in Coffs Harbour rang to see if I still wanted to buy her practice.”

The owner had been unwell for a while and there was only one dentist working a couple of short days a week. Dr Marinucci purchased the practice and began building the business from this minimal base.

“It was a good practice, it just needed some love,” she says. “If you’re good to patients—and they know it—then they will come back, and they will tell their friends. You don’t need to spend a lot on advertising, but a good practice manager is essential. Early on, I was pretty forgiving if anyone made a mistake as long as they owned it and learned from it. No matter what systems are in place or how hard you try, there will always be something that happens that you’d rather didn’t. Difficult situations are an opportunity to learn, grow and develop yourself, your systems or someone else.”

Expansion number three

With both practices now running smoothly, one of the dentists working for Dr Marinucci asked if she would be interested in setting up a practice together in the nearby town of Grafton. At that time, Grafton was a logical extension and Dr Marinucci already knew which practice would be the most viable option for them. As it happened, when they contacted the owner, he was ready to sell. It was a classic case of good timing.

Now with three practices under her control, Dr Marinucci was employing many staff and relying on their various skills. “There is only so much you can do on your own. You learn so much from other people and can utilise what they have learnt from a career in the industry. There might be an especially good idea that’s not widely known or a new idea that makes things easier. The thing is, if I worked with people who were just like me, we would learn nothing and get nowhere. I always try to work with people who are better than I am in different areas. That was how we grew the practices.”

Corporate interest

Grafton was renovated early on and Coffs and Urunga had to be relocated to meet capacity. A new phase was about to start in Dr Marinucci’s career. While all this was happening, she was also looking at a location for a fourth practice in Macksville as well as negotiating with BUPA Dental Corporation about selling the business.

“I thought that we could learn a lot by selling to BUPA Dental Corporation,” says Dr Marinucci. “They had amassed so much experience and could help streamline the practices and help them grow. We’ve been part of BUPA Dental Corporation since 2011. It is really good fun getting together with the other principal dentists.” 

Out in the community

Dr Marinucci is also a big believer in community work and has been involved with a variety of programs over the years. Staff from her practices have visited many of the local preschools to show kids the correct way to brush their teeth. They also talk about oral hygiene and diet in an age-appropriate way. 

Sharon Marinucci
Dr Sharon Marinucci has built her practices through a combination of skill, being in the right place at the right time, and focusing on patients first.

“At school and preschool visits, we provide oral health packs for students,” says Dr Marinucci. “Between these and community events we give away between four and five thousand toothbrushes each year. This idea stems from an incident in my childhood. When I was quite young, I had a friend who didn’t know he had to brush his teeth until he was eight years old. It was a school visit from a dentist that saw him receive his first toothbrush and get shown how to use it. Unfortunately, that’s still the case with some kids today. The statistics for tooth decay in children in the Mid North Coast and Northern Rivers areas are terrible, particularly in the under-six demographic.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Dr Marinucci was also doing dental check-ups with her staff in nursing homes. The major problem she faced was doing work at a standard comparable to what could be achieved in her practice. “The nursing homes we visited were all very caring but they didn’t always know what to do,” says Dr Marinucci. “They appreciated feedback and advice.”

Aside from oral health, she also supports the local art gallery and sponsors local sports clubs. 

A bright future

Over the years, Dr Marinucci’s staff and practices have won awards and been finalists in many more. She attributes this success to the highly skilled clinicians, support teams and business managers with which she works.

Among the many accolades are multiple wins in the Clarence Valley Awards, Sunny’s Business Awards, the Mid North Coast Regional Awards, the Northern Rivers Regional Awards and even a Coffs Harbour Waterwise Garden Award. 

“The feedback we receive is overwhelmingly positive and attending the Awards nights is a lovely recognition of our teams. Likewise, when our staff attend infection control courses, they always say, ‘But we already do all that.’ They then understand that we are not just being pedantic, but everything is done for a reason. I know it makes them feel proud of what they do.”

Dr Marinucci remains positive about the profession and dentistry as a career. “It provides enormous flexibility,” she says. “You have the capacity to do the things you enjoy and refer the rest to someone who enjoys them more. There’s always something new to learn. For a new graduate just starting out, dentistry is a wonderful career. However, if you want your own practice it will be trickier to find a new spot to set up from scratch. The dynamics are changing but there will be new, different opportunities.” 

Dr Sharon Marinucci’s advice to graduates:

  •  Look after people, treat them fairly and make sure they know it. 
  • If you do a good job and are not greedy, there’s always going to be a place for you.
  • You need to be able to account for every cent but you shouldn’t get hung up over keeping every cent for yourself.
  • Life’s not fair. Accept that and feel lucky. 
  • Being a good dentist and being successful in business is very much about how you relate to people. You simply have to engage with others if you want your own business. It’s made by the people around you. 
  • If it’s not fun don’t do it!
  • If you can’t do it find someone who can.
  • Buy beautiful original art for your workplace. 


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