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AMHERST FIRM COMBINES ART, SCIENCE TO MAKE CERAMIC TEETH

Robert Ganley likes to see people be happy when they smile. After all, it could be his company's teeth that make those smiles look good.

As chief executive of Ivoclar Vivadent AG and head of its North American subsidiary in Amherst, Ganley leads an international company that is trying to transform dentistry, one tooth at a time.

Espousing what it calls the "Esthetic Revolution," Ivoclar Vivadent claims it combines art and science to make ceramic teeth that look and feel more real than in the past.

The company has profited from increased awareness by consumers of new products and tools, and how their bite can be better -- a recognition that the company itself is largely responsible for through its marketing to dentists and patients. In particular, the popularity of ABC's television reality show "Extreme Makeover" -- which includes a team of dentists -- has contributed to the company's recent success. In turn, Ganley believes the private European company can restore a sense of dignity and even pride to patients otherwise too embarrassed to open wide.

"It's not just getting rid of the pain, but restoring the smile and improving the smile beyond what nature gave us," said Ganley, a lanky 52-year-old Syracuse native, who joined the company when it bought Buffalo-based Williams Gold Refining Co. in 1987. He commutes every other week between Buffalo and Europe.

But while business is booming, Ivoclar is no longer satisfied with making teeth. The company is expanding beyond its roots to make other equipment for dentists, such as its sleek cordless LED curing light to solidify composite and its Odyssey soft-tissue laser for trimming away extra tissue from the gum.

And a year ago it bought Dentigenix, a company whose patented therapies are aimed at healing teeth by regenerating living tissue, instead of just restoring teeth with man-made material. "In the future, we see the trend will be from restoration to regeneration," Ganley said.

Such moves keep it in the forefront of its industry even without being the leader in sales. "They're really innovative," said Ken Jones, owner of New Creation Dental Studio in Cheektowaga, a dental laboratory that also does testing and consulting for the company. "A lot of companies were playing catch-up."

Ivoclar Vivadent has cut its niche during a history dating to 1923 in Europe and to 1898 in the United States. That's when A.D. Williams mined the Klondike Gold Rush in Western Canada and Alaska.

Ivoclar is based in Schaan, Liechtenstein, a tiny mountainous country just a little smaller than Washington, D.C., with about 33,000 people. Tucked between Austria and Switzerland and bordered by the Rhine River and the Alps, the German-speaking principality is known for low taxes and lax banking laws that are attractive to business. Its biggest homegrown companies are Ivoclar and tool company Hilti Corp.

Traditionally known as a ceramic tooth company, Ivoclar today makes and distributes a range of products to dentists and dental laboratories worldwide. Its primary business is focused around the tooth itself, using its ceramic, metal or composite materials to make crowns, inlays, onlays or veneers for patients. It employs 2,200 -- 250 in North America.

Ivoclar operates in a sub-field of the worldwide dental materials market. With $500 million in annual revenues and about 15 percent to 20 percent of its market in the developed world, Ivoclar is tied for the No. 2 spot in its particular field with Sybron Dental Specialties of Orange, Calif., and 3M Co. of St. Paul, Minn. The industry is led by Dentsply of York, Pa.

But it's a fast-growing company. Where dental technology and clinical dentistry revenues have been growing steadily at about 6 percent to 7 percent a year, Ivoclar's businesses are growing at more than 20 percent, Ganley said.

That's largely a result of its own making. In the early 1990s, Ivoclar launched a marketing campaign to convince dentists and patients that the new products of esthetic dentistry could deliver better-looking results than before.

"The smile is the most recognizable asset," Ganley said. "People believe their smile is important and most people don't think they have a good one."

The result has been a change in attitude among professionals and patients toward dentistry they want, not just need. Where dentists 10 years ago didn't advertise much, today such ads abound in the telephone book, newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Ivoclar itself advertises on the Style channel. And "Extreme Makeover" includes dental work as part of its transformation each week.

"It had a tremendous impact bigger than anyone really thought at the time of driving patient awareness and product development into the realm of more cosmetic dentistry," said New Creation's Jones of Ivoclar's marketing.

Now consumers even ask for products by name, Ganley said. It's even attracted attention from celebrities in Hollywood and elsewhere. Customers have included Olympic gold medal gymnast Shannon Miller, who has had 14 restorations using Ivoclar's IPS Empress. "Metal has its place, but people want to look good. People don't want metal in their mouth," said spokesman John Isherwood. "Today's dental technician is more of an artist. There's a lot of pride that goes into making the tooth, the detail, the color, the translucency."

Ivoclar's flagship line is Empress, which it says is the "best-known brand" in restorative dentistry worldwide. The all-ceramic material, colored to look natural, has been used for more than 25 million teeth restorations and half of all ceramic restorations worldwide. More than 7,000 labs around the globe use Empress to make crowns or other coverings, which can cost the patient between $650 to $2,000.

Purchasing the Empress system for a lab costs $10,000, including furnaces, training and the cylindrical ingots from which crowns are carved in multiple shades. Ivoclar also makes an all-resin version called Concept, bonding agents and cements, and dentures. And it's actively pushing into the technology market.

Its primary research and manufacturing operations are in Liechtenstein, with more sites in Northern Italy, the Philippines and Sweden. Other operations are in Australia, France, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and New Zealand.

Ivoclar sells its products in more than 120 countries, but the United States is the biggest market for the dental industry, followed by Europe. The company serves North America from its 70,000-square-foot office and warehouse off Sweet Home Road, a Canadian subsidiary in Ontario, and a smaller manufacturing facility on Hertel Avenue that makes alloys.

In Amherst, the company employs about 150, including 35 certified dental technicians in white medical coats. It has 40 customer service workers taking calls from dentists and technicians or making sales calls, as well as a group to handle technical questions. Its warehouse fills 13,000 orders a month.

Its research and development staff manage about 57 clinical studies in progress at dental offices, labs and schools throughout the country. It has an in-house dental office to test products and give employees free dental cleanings. And it has about 75 employees and four training facilities scattered across North America to service and teach more than 1,500 dental professionals each year.

The company is still owned by Christoph Zeller, grandson of the founder.

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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