An Interview with Michael Apa
Rick Cohen: Dr. Apa, thank you so much for being on the Driving Dentistry Forward podcast. It’s great to see you and a pleasure to have you on. So, thank you. It’s Saturday right now. We really appreciate your making some Saturday hours available to us.
Dr. Michael Apa: And it’s great to be here. It’s a beautiful fall day, beautiful scenery. So, I’m good to go.
Rick Cohen: Awesome. I want to read to the listeners a little bit about you. I’ve got a copy of your bio here, which I found on the Web. “With offices in New York, Dubai, and Los Angeles, and an exclusive line of luxury oral care cosmetics available worldwide, Dr. Apa brings the very best in aesthetic dentistry to a global clientele. An industry pioneer, he transformed the world of cosmetic dentistry with an innovative approach to flawless veneers known as ‘facial aesthetic design,’ or FAD, that ensures no two smiles are alike. Rather, each extraordinarily natural and expertly crafted smile is tailored to enhance a patient’s unique face. His signature style and award-winning results inspired counterculture in aesthetic dentistry, a practice that draws the highest-level talent from around the globe and a star-studded patient roster. In 2014, he founded Apa Beauty, a groundbreaking line of luxury oral care cosmetics that raises the bar for daily at-home care, leading with an unparalleled passion for aesthetics and commitment to the very best in care. Dr. Apa transformed cosmetic dentistry and secured its place in the luxury market.”
Rick Cohen: Welcome, Dr. Apa. I know that you just came off the plane from Dubai.
Dr. Michael Apa: I did.
Rick Cohen: And then I learned—and I kind of knew, I heard rumors of this—that you spent quite a bit of time there. Can you tell us what’s going on in Dubai?
Dr. Michael Apa: Yes, I haven’t been there since February. My last trip was in February, and then obviously everything hit. In fact, when I was there, there was a lot more talk of everything going on. And there was . . . You could feel it a lot more in February because when we went into the airport . . . Looking back . . . It’s embarrassing, but a lot of the Asian—there’s obviously a huge Asian population there—and a lot of the Asians in the airports were wearing masks. And the people on the counters were wearing masks. I was joking with my assistant when I was going through, like, “This is ridiculous. Why are these people wearing masks?” Lo and behold, March came around and New York, as you know, got hit really hard. We closed the office down March 15th or 16th, something like that. And we closed Dubai and L.A. at the same time.
Dr. Michael Apa: In fact, one of my ceramists got COVID. It was interesting, actually, I would say March 15th, one of the ceramists called me and said, “Oh, so-and-so has a fever and a headache.” I was like, “Oh my God.” And I called him, and he’s Brazilian, I said, “How are you feeling?” He’s like, “Oh, I’m OK. You know, a little headache. I’m fine.” And I’m like, “Well, you have to go get tested.” He’s like, “No, I don’t think it’s anything. I’m just going to stay home today.” And I was like, “Yeah, don’t come in. And please, go get tested.” It was much harder back then. No one really knew the process of how to get tested and all that stuff. In any case, we shut everything down. That day, I went in and had an office meeting, canceled patients for the week, and it was mind-blowing, to say the least. We had patients in temporaries all over the world because a lot of our patients travel into locations, so they’re not necessarily just in New York, or in L.A., or in Dubai. And I still had two patients in temporaries since February when I went back for this trip.
Rick Cohen: [inaudible] test that temporary cement, huh?
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah. It’s scary. I mean, you think about being in plastic teeth, 20 plastic teeth, for seven months. But, you know, I would say the fear, it wasn’t so much getting on the plane and going to Dubai. It was more of the process of what you were going to encounter and what you needed to do in order to get through and then get home. So there was talk of testing when you land and quarantining. And I go for essentially four working days. So, I leave Thursday night; I get there Friday night and I work Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and come home Wednesday morning. So if I had to quarantine, I would have essentially eaten up the trip. And obviously New York is very busy. And I just don’t have the time, the physical time, to sit in quarantine for however long that needed to be. So that was one of the things that I was thinking about. How is it going to be on the plane? Do I really have to wear a mask for 14 hours? You know, just a lot of the unknowns. What was the airport going to be like getting through security and all that stuff? And I have to say that Emirates, the airline, is amazing. If you don’t know about it, it’s one of the most magical airlines, ever. It’s great. And they really have their act together, and they made it very seamless. JFK was great and getting into Dubai was completely fine. I guess what actually happens is they take your temperature and figure out if your temperature is high, then they test you. And that’s really the people they’re testing from the United States. And then once we got into Dubai, I was actually kind of shocked coming from New York. And you’re there, so you know how kind of quiet and careful people really are. I mean, some outdoor diners, you know, you can argue, but going from New York to L.A. It’s very busy in L.A. and outdoor dining might as well just be indoor because they’re so close, and it’s so packed and crowds are out shopping and really living life. And in Dubai, it felt very similar. So when I walked into the hotel, it was packed and I was shocked, really. So it was interesting, but very—I hate to say it—but kind of normal. So it was nice. I mean, obviously, one half of you is always going to be afraid that it’s going to come back and it’s going to be worse and we’re going to go through this again, or obviously we are still going through it. But the other half is—it was the first time, especially even my sleep schedule, the way that those trips mess up your sleep schedule— I happen to enjoy it because it makes you wake up really early and you’re wide awake at four o’clock in the morning, which is my favorite time to be awake.
Dr. Michael Apa: So (the pandemic) really has brought, in some strange way, normalcy back to my life; kind of full circle. It was great—the long answer to a very short question.
Rick Cohen: I also travel a lot internationally, and in December we were in Vietnam and we had tickets to Wuhan because we had to go there for work. And Cynthia, my fiancé, who’s a physician and is on all of these email lists, she said there’s something going on in Wuhan and we shouldn’t go. She said that kind of thing before, so I immediately brushed it off thinking it was just another one of those hypochondriac things or whatever. And I said, “No.” She said, “I think this one seems different.” So we decided not to go to Wuhan, which was great. I mean, obviously we now all know the history, but this was the third week of December where there were maybe a couple dozen people sick with something unique in Wuhan. Obviously, I’m glad we didn’t go because we might have gotten sick. But also, even if we didn’t get sick, getting out of Wuhan at that time would have been nearly impossible.
Rick Cohen: It’s amazing how this whole thing developed so quickly. But I want to go back a little bit back to Dubai. I’m not sure our listeners know that you, I think, have an office there. Is that right?
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah.
Rick Cohen: So how did that come about? Why Dubai? And what’s your schedule? How do you manage that?
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah, so I think, like kind of everything that we’re going to talk about. I’m 43 now, and when I started (working in) Dubai I was 29, which is a much different age and it makes sense now to say, “Yeah, I have an office in Dubai.” I mean, it’s . . . “Why (Dubai)?” I didn’t know these answers then, (but) I can tell you now. But why Dubai? Because it’s a perfect location and it’s built for international travel. And that really is my patient base. So, even in New York, I would say maybe 15 to 20 percent of my patients that I treat now—remember, I’m only doing large cases and then patients are kind of going home—but I would say 20 percent of my patient base is actually living in New York City. Most are traveling. So in a place like Dubai, when you put boots on the ground in a place like that, you are central to Asia, Europe, the U.S., the Middle East. At that time, I mean, look, there’s obviously great dental care everywhere. And I hate when Americans say there’s no great dental care there. So I open an office, but that’s not the case. But there wasn’t anything like what I was offering in that region at the time. How it came about, it is kind of the story of my life, which is I did a television show that I thought was ridiculous when I was 27 or 28. It was like an E! show. I don’t even know if E! is on anymore. And it was like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Robin Leach voice. It was an hour-(long) segment, and they went into the lifestyles of the rich and famous doctors, and hairstylists, and makeup artists, and I was the dentist. I was in the great company of very established people.
Dr. Michael Apa: It’s a question people always ask me—if I look back on it now, I was very not established. If you asked me then I felt like I was a superstar, but I wasn’t. And they filmed the show and I remember being annoyed about it and thinking that it was so cheesy and kind of not what I wanted my message to be. It was just one of those things that I did. And it was syndicated and played in Europe and played in the United States a lot. And a lot of people saw it. And in London, the royal family had been (watching it). There were members of the royal family (who) saw it. They made an appointment and they flew into New York. I treated four or five of the family, and I became very close friends with them personally. And it was also interesting at that time.
Dr. Michael Apa: If I’m being completely honest, there wasn’t a lure (to Dubai). This was pre-2008, when the financial collapse happened. Dubai was booming then. And a lot of Europeans, especially British-based dentists, were going there for opportunity. London wasn’t what it was or what it is now. And Dubai seemed like this place that was magical. There were vending machines with gold bars and Rolls Royces paving the highways and the police cars were Lamborghinis. People thought that they could go there and do cosmetic dentistry for the royal family. It was just like a thing. And I remember, we ran an Aesthetic Advantage course, which is a hands-on continuum. And we used to have — not we — Larry (Rosenthal), the guy that I bought the practice from. (He) ran a course in London that I was an instructor at.
Dr. Michael Apa: I would travel to London and teach this course. And a lot of the dentists would always ask Larry to be a part of something. “Oh, we’re going to do something in Dubai.” And Larry included me in all those conversations. I was open to hearing everything, and I was a kid. I was 26 or 27, maybe two years out of dental school. So when they came over, I made conversation with the royal family.
Dr. Michael Apa: For me, you have to imagine I grew up in upstate New York. I didn’t have a passport until I was 29. I had never traveled outside of the country. I had no concept of any of this. So for me, I would always be open or invite opportunities without . . . It’s kind of just me being young and naive, and not knowing really anything, just thinking like, “Yeah, that’d be cool to go there and start a practice,” and not understanding what it really takes to do that. When he came over, I became friends with him and he asked me, have I ever been? And I told him no. But I would love to have a practice. I would love to work there. And he invited me in his own way to come and kind of see Dubai.
Dr. Michael Apa: And he gave me an amazing first trip. He really took me around and introduced me to doctors. I started as a visiting dentist there where I would fly in. It was crazy. I’ll tell you about that in a second. But I would fly in and treat patients and fly home.
Dr. Michael Apa: And when you’re young like that and you don’t think through everything that can go wrong like you do when you get older… I was fearless, and I still am fearless. And I think that’s a great trait to a degree, as long as you’re going to be fearless and back it up with hard work. I kind of have always said this is a great opportunity, so I should do it, not thinking through what needs to actually happen.
Dr. Michael Apa: And then once I commit to it, and then it’s this personal thing where I’m not going to let it fail. I just work harder than everyone else to make sure that whatever I’ve said I’m going to do, that it actually happens. That’s essentially how Dubai came about. I told people, “I’m going to go to Dubai and treat patients.” And then I went there and I started treating patients and then I said, “I’m going to open an office there.” Then I did. But it wasn’t without massive turmoil, and that’s what people say all the time, like, “Oh, you haven’t . . . He’s got an office in Dubai.” It’s like many dentists have called me over the last 15 years and said, “Oh, I want to start a practice in Dubai. Can you tell me how to do it?” If I knew what it took, it’s like timing, and a little bit of luck, and a ton of hard work, and a lot of perseverance. I would tell my 28-year-old self, “Don’t even try. It’s going to be impossible.” But it worked out.
Rick Cohen: It sure did. What was that first visit to Dubai as a guest of the royal family? Did they fly you on their plane?
Dr. Michael Apa: No, they flew me on Emirates (Airlines) and again . . .
Rick Cohen: Still pretty darn good!
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah. I mean, going on Emirates at that time . . . First of all, it wasn’t as known. I remember being at a dinner party of a fashion designer in New York, who was having a dinner party to be written up in Town and Country. And it was a big deal. And it was like my first real invite to go to one of these types of dinners. I was 28 or 29. And they sat me next to Ivanka Trump because they thought that maybe we would hit it off. And she was talking about flying . . .
Rick Cohen: You were single at the time?
Dr. Michael Apa: I was single, very single. She was talking about Emirates and what an amazing airline (it was). And I obviously had nothing to compare it to. So that was my first introduction to what Emirates was. A lot of these conversations I would have with patients. I lived in a one-bedroom on the Upper East Side. I had no money and I had no real history of living that type of lifestyle. So it’s hard to have those conversations. I was a master of listening and nodding and making it seem like that I knew something, but I knew nothing.
Rick Cohen: So would you describe it as like a duck? You know, they say the duck looks so calm on the top of the water, but under the water, his feet are . . .
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. And it was massive.
Rick Cohen: Deep down, you were uncomfortable.
Dr. Michael Apa: Oh, massively uncomfortable. You know, people think that I’m this huge extrovert with a big personality. I’m very introverted. I don’t really love to be in crowds of people, especially when I’m out of my comfort zone, which at that time, every day I was out of my comfort zone. I think about having to mingle with this crowd of people, and then treating the royal family, and getting invited to go to Dubai. I was a nervous wreck on the inside. On the outside, I was cool as a cucumber.
Rick Cohen: Right. That’s the game. I can completely relate to that because I’m also very introverted and those types of events make me very uncomfortable. But you can’t appear that way.
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah. So, my first trip to Dubai, they booked me Emirates. It was like this magical thing that I had only heard about through Ivanka Trump, which obviously was a big name back then. I’m not that [inaudible]. And, you know, it was opulence. I landed, and again, it was pre-financial collapse. He took me in his Bugatti and drove me all through Dubai and Abu Dhabi and explained to me where the land used to stop and what this used to look like even five years ago, and was really giving me the real history of how that city was built up. There was never a “You should come here and become a dentist, and I’m going to back you.” It was more of like “I’m going to give you a lot of information about something that’s very magical to me. And if you think it’s magical as well, then you should come here and do something.” That was the the whole conversation. And we drove around ’till probably—they sleep late and they’re up late—so we were in the car till 2:00, 3:00 in the morning driving through Dubai and all parts of the UAE. It was a life experience that could never be replicated. In the end, again, it was one of those things where I had already told myself, “I’m doing this.”
Dr. Michael Apa: There was no fear of, “Oh my God, how am I going to do this, and how am I . . . ?” It was just like, “OK, I’m going to need basic things. I’m going to need instruments. How am I going to get instruments I’m going to need?” And that’s just how it happens, a little bit at a time. It was never super overwhelming. And I’ll tell you about these trips, if I had known what I had to do in order to become a dentist in Dubai during those initial trips, it sounded impossible.
Rick Cohen: It’s so interesting that you describe it as something that if you were your current age, knowing what you know now, you would never do it. And yet my bet is you’re probably happy that you did do it, right? So it’s funny. And I can completely relate to that, too. I mean, the risks that you’re willing to take in your 20s, whether it’s cliff diving or whatever your thing is, are very different from the set of risks that you’re willing to take in your 40s.
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah, that’s another thing. I mean, when you talk about risks . . . You know, these were never really risks to me because at the end of my personal day, I was a kid from upstate New York. I was fine if my life was going back to upstate New York, starting a dental practice, living in the town that I grew up in; I would have been fine with that.
Dr. Michael Apa: I knew that that was my fallback. And so everything I did in New York when I had first gotten there, everything seems now like a massive risk that I took. Everyone told me not to buy Larry’s practice. Even going to NYU was a huge risk. From every point of my career, if I had listened to the people around me, they all told me that this is a bad idea. It’s too much. This is a bad idea. You shouldn’t do this. This is too much risk. And to me, I was like, “There’s no risk. What’s the risk? What do I have to lose?”
Dr. Michael Apa: So being in Dubai, we went for that first trip. It was magical. And very quickly after that, I had to figure out again—remember, I’m 28 or 29, and I don’t have this global reputation that people think that I did at that time. I had to figure out a way to get patients in the chair. And these were: “To go there . . . I’m not going to go there.” The flights were, I don’t know, $10,000 at the time, or something like that. I wasn’t going to go there unless there was some real reason for me to go. And so we had to figure out how to get awareness in the Middle East while I was in New York and I wasn’t there. Think about building a practice anywhere, even in your own hometown. It’s hard to get patients to walk. I mean, that’s probably the hardest thing in cosmetic dentistry.
Rick Cohen: Assuming you can do the work, because not everybody can.
Dr. Michael Apa: Right.
Rick Cohen: But assuming you’re capable—and there’s a lot of great cosmetic dentists, right? Building the patient base is . . .
Dr. Michael Apa: There’s a lot of great cosmetic dentists that unfortunately are sitting on their hands because they don’t understand how to get people in the door. There’s a lot of great technical dentists in the world that are sitting on their hands because they don’t understand how to get patients in the door. And, yeah, I mean, that has to be the given, right? That you understand how to do the procedures.
Dr. Michael Apa: But knowing that . . . No one’s going to come in and say, “Oh, you look like a guy that knows how to do this. So can you please rip my whole mouth apart and make it look something totally different? And I have total trust in you.” It was crazy. We figured out a way, and we had this big article written in a big magazine that was in the GCC, and it just created this windfall of patients coming in. And I remember, I was booking patients back then—this is 2008—over the phone. There was no Facetime or anything like that. It was good old-fashioned landline, and they were giving $10,000 retainers to hold appointments to go and treat them. And it was crazy. I remember hanging up the phone and speaking to my office manager and saying, “Is this not the craziest thing you’ve ever seen?” And that was just the beginning of what now is just this insane career that I’ve been blessed to have.
Rick Cohen: You say “blessed,” but in so many ways, you’ve earned it. And so, I’d like to switch. How do you go to . . . I mean, the thought of visiting Dubai every month? My understanding is you’re there every month for a week. So just the time change alone . . . I also travel a lot internationally. The time just kicks my butt. And the older I get, the harder it is. So how long does . . . I mean, you just came on the plane yesterday, right, or this morning?
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah. Yesterday.
Rick Cohen: Yeah. What are your secrets to jet lag and to managing even just that?
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah.
Rick Cohen: And managing your family, as well.
Dr. Michael Apa: My sweet spot in life has always been like 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. When I was younger, it was being up until then and going to bed at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., which was insane to people around me. And now as I’ve gotten older, it’s getting up at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., which is insane to people around me. I have to say that the first thing is I don’t really get true jet lag. I guess I do, but I enjoy it. I’m not one of those people, and I’ve had to work on this, but I’m not one of those people that gets frantic if they’re tired. Like when I was young, I used to go out a lot when I was in my 20s, and so I was used to just kind of being tired all the time because I would be out until 3:00 in the morning and then up at work and working in a very high-pressure, high-intensity environment. And I said that I was constantly on this emotional rush of energy that I needed to function at that level. Without it, to be honest . . .
Dr. Michael Apa: People think that on the weekends, I’m out and doing stuff all the time, and I’m pretty quiet on the weekends. I really enjoy complete nothingness, of good movies, good podcasts, just anything to shut my brain off and relax. But in order for me to be happy, part of the happiness comes from the rush of doing these things, going to Dubai once a month, and sitting in a podcast and hearing you say, “How do you do that?” That gives me energy, and it always has. So I used to actually go every three weeks, which was really intense. But to make it worse, I opened L.A. and then I go to L.A. once a month for a week as well, which is the opposite direction in time, which is intense as well.
Rick Cohen: Sure. Dubai to L.A. is probably one of the longer flights that you can even take, right? Do they even have that?
Dr. Michael Apa: It’s 28 hours.
Rick Cohen: That’s like flying Australia from New York. Amazing.
Dr. Michael Apa: Again, I feel like I’ve gone through this training from when I was younger and I’m just kind of wired that way.
Rick Cohen: When you say “training,” do you mean the parties?
Dr. Michael Apa: It’s not just the parties. Look, you’re either this type of person or you’re not. There’s a lot of things that have really come into clear vision as I hit 40. It’s not for everyone. And you cannot fake (it). People say all the time, “I want to do what you’re doing.” You just either have this thing in you, or you don’t. I’ve never had to say to myself, “I need to get energized because I have to go to Dubai.” Actually I get excited to go, and I get excited to be tired. I get excited that I get an hour alone at four o’clock in the morning to do something that I want to do when it’s peaceful and quiet. So it was not hard.
Dr. Michael Apa: It was never work. It never once was work. And think about what I was doing. I was going and treating royal family members and all of these people that it was just so far outside of my world that it was a rush every single time. Every trip to Dubai that I’ve gone to since 2008, some crazy story has happened to where you say, “How would I ever get these life experiences if I was sitting in one place and not doing this?” It was fuel all the time.
Rick Cohen: Any crazy Dubai stories come to mind?
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah. I mean, to add to it, I used to go to Dubai and work on patients during the day, which were high-profile, difficult, complex cases. First of all, we have to set some understanding. When I used to go to Dubai as a visiting doctor, I used to go for a week and I would go on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and I would prep teeth. I would prep 150 teeth in three days out of one room. So it was efficiency like crazy, and it had high-end aesthetics. I didn’t have x-rays going in. I didn’t have photographs. It was done over a telephone. I had no idea what I was walking into and I had to perform to get something in people’s mouth. If I needed them to come back and get implants or root canals, I would figure it out. But I would sit down and prep eight, nine, full mouths in three days. I would send a dental assistant from the office in Dubai that I was working out of back to New York with all the cases. My ceramist at the time would close his lab down. He and seven or eight other ceramists would just do my cases. He would get on a plane with all the cases and get in on Friday morning. So he had Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday to build up 150 units at that level of . . . “I want this angle, and this color, and this.” And then he would deliver it on Friday, and I would insert them in three days and then we would leave. It was insane. So that was the intensity that I was going there with. And when I opened my own office, like anything, people say, “Why would you open an office in Dubai? Why wouldn’t they just come to you here? Aren’t you busy enough in New York that . . . Do you really need to go to Dubai?” What people don’t understand is that when you are in a region and you’re going out socially, you’re promoting, you are meeting patients and really interacting with them on their turf or their area, their region, it just grows. And being young and seeing Larry, and seeing all of his friends that were 30 years older than me, I had a very keen sense that I wanted to do this every day.
Rick Cohen: I would think that for dentists that are capable of doing it, there’s probably no better feeling than to be able to delight patients in a way that they probably didn’t even (expect). I mean, you pass the mirror to them, so they’re seeing their teeth for the first time. And in many cases, I bet you see tears. So that type of feeling that you get from that must be indescribable.
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah, but you know, there’s an intangible that people don’t understand in this industry. And I relate a lot of these conversations to sports because it’s really not unlike a sport where there is a competition within yourself.
Dr. Michael Apa: If you really are that type of person that needs to be the best, and whatever that means, you need to feel that. If there’s one person getting cosmetic dentistry in the world, it has to be in your hands because you’re the best. So why would they go anywhere else? And that has always been an underlying feeling that’s been in me. And it’s just pure competition, not directly with another person, but competition with myself, that I need to treat everyone.
Dr. Michael Apa: So when I used to go to Dubai, and when I still go, you’re asking about stories. There have been many times where I’ll go and work a full day in my office in Dubai—I’d land from New York on Friday night, get in Saturday and work from 8:30 in the morning ‘til 5:00 at night, and then get on a private plane and go to someone’s palace and see that patient at midnight, and then get back on that private plane, fly back to Dubai, get to my hotel at five, shower and go back to the office on Sunday and do it all over again. And there’s been multiple trips where I was getting pulled out in the middle of the night for these, I call them “night runs,” where I was packing up an entire team on a jet and going to some… sometimes dangerous or seemingly unknown palace where you’re going in with armed guards and they take your passport and you’re like, my wife would be like, “Where are you and I?” There were times where I couldn’t even call her and tell her where I was. But it all adds to life, you know. What is life really about? And for me, it’s always been pushing it to the max . . .
Rick Cohen: Stories you tell, right? And you said three words that sent shivers down my spine: “Taking my passport.” Yes. Those are three words I never hope to have to comply with.
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah.
Rick Cohen: [inaudible] gets awful, real awful, quickly.
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah. And my cellphone.
Rick Cohen: Oh wow. (Let’s) shift gears a little. I’ve been in the dental business my whole life because we’re a family of dental business people, but in 1994, I was a sales rep just starting out. I was 24 years old and I was in New York, and at the time there was one almost, I would say “almost” undisputed Michael Jordan in our industry, and it was Larry Rosenthal. And so he happens to have been… I called on him as a sales rep, and I got to know him. What an amazing individual. But at the time, when he lectured, you couldn’t get a seat. Everybody loved Larry Rosenthal. I mean, not only he was—he is, although I haven’t seen him in a while, I’m sure he’s the same guy—but he’s an incredibly gifted dentist and also a really fun guy, and so…
Dr. Michael Apa: Magical.
Rick Cohen: Yeah. And so I think that he—unfortunately, we all have our sunset. There’s no question, we can’t do what we’re doing forever. He must have come to that realization and realized he needed a younger dentist to fill his shoes. And you were the chosen one. So I’d love to know, how did you wind up in that situation? And then once you got in that situation, and you were in your 30s, and you’re in Doctor Rosenthal’s practice, so you’re expected to do the quality of work of Dr. Rosenthal. Did you feel stressed? I mean, I would imagine the stress and the expectations must have been sky-high. Here he is, regarded as “the dentist’s dentist,” one of the best in the world, filling up cosmetic lectures everywhere he goes. And you, (you were) in your early 30s, (and) expected to do that quality of work all of a sudden. How did that feel?
Dr. Michael Apa: So, again, it’s all the same kind of common thread. I knew about Larry when I went for career day in eleventh grade in high school. I went to my local dentist in upstate New York and he played me an audiotape of Larry’s lecture. And I was floored. As a young, competitive guy, going into dental school, you want to be an oral surgeon because it’s the highest level of education, and you have all the degrees, and you can reconstruct someone’s face, and you’re a real doctor, or whatever. So I went in saying, “I want to be an oral surgeon.” And he said, “Well, you know, that’s great.” But listen to this. This guy, Larry Rosenthal, he’s in New York City. You know, he’s a cosmetic dentist. It’s a new kind of . . . This was 1998, so it wasn’t . . . .a lot of people didn’t know about cosmetic dentistry. It wasn’t as obviously as big as it is now. So I listened to the tape and right then and there I said, “Now, that’s what I’m doing.” I was in a 3-4 program with Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and University of Buffalo, which was a state school. And basically, you did three years of Le Moyne and you got automatically accepted to state school. I was on full loan, so it was economically smart for me to do this. I didn’t want to do the program, (but) my parents were like, “You have to do this. It’s the only thing . . . You’re going to be drowning in debt if you don’t.” So when I was in Le Moyne, I dropped out of the program and realized, if I’m going to do this, I have to go to New York because I have to be near this guy. And I went to that same dentist and I told him my plan. I remember, he pulled out a pencil and paper and he said, “Listen.” And what? And he started doing the math. “As an associate, your first year out, you’re going to make this. These are what your student loans are going to be.” And the way that the math worked out is I didn’t have money for food. So every person that was a kind of mentor or a parent around me told me that I should go to University of Buffalo. So I went to NYU, and the second year of dental school, Larry came in and gave a lecture to the second-year dental students. It was 2001. It was right after 9/11.
Dr. Michael Apa: And I remember the watch he was wearing. I remember his hair like he was like Michael Jordan. It was like seeing Michael Jordan. This is what people outside of dentistry don’t understand, is (that) every profession has their Michael Jordan. It’s just we’re not playing in an arena, but he was Michael Jordan in dentistry. If you saw him, I remember walking into meetings with him on the AACD and things like that, and people treated him like Michael Jordan.
Rick Cohen: It’s true.
Dr. Michael Apa: So I ran up to him after the lecture and I had a student business card that said, “Dr. Michael Apa” or “Michael Apa, student dentist,” or something. I remember giving it to him and saying, “I’m going to work for you, one day.” And he got into his car and left, and that was it for me. So I ended up starting an undergraduate curriculum of aesthetic dentistry. We didn’t have aesthetic dental, cosmetic dentistry lectures when we were in dental school. And I remember Marty Zase was the president of AACD at the time, and I called him on the phone. I got his number from the directory and called him on the phone. “My name is Mike Apa at NYU Dental, and I want to start a branch of cosmetic dentistry for dental students.” I got funding through NYU, and I had all these great speakers. I had Ray Bertolotti come from California. And it was all to have Larry come and lecture so that I could meet him more. And he did. I still have the picture of him and I in 2002. But the interesting thing is, when you’re originally asking me this—if you know Larry, he is magical. But Larry has, in his own mind, it’s his world, and he’s not as much of a forward thinker, thinking “I’m getting older, I’m going to retire someday. I need a young dentist to . . .” Believe me, that was the furthest thing from his mind. Larry (is) 73 right now, and he’s still practicing and he still thinks that he’s 20 or younger. It’s not even a concept in his mind of thinking like that.
Dr. Michael Apa: So the way that I got into that office was, actually I used to call the office manager, who was the office manager at the time and is still there, her name is Jackie. And he was running Aesthetic Advantage and I would call and say, “You know, I really want to meet Dr. Rosenthal. I’ve started the Aesthetics program, blah, blah, blah. Can I come observe?” And little by little, I would try to go to the office. I would always make up an excuse. I bought him a gift one time for lecturing and I got to deliver it. And I met different people in the office, and there was a young woman there—who’s no longer there—who started a spa under Larry down the street. The idea was to put a bleaching light in the spa so that we could convert patients to actually doing their teeth that were going in for facials, or bleaching, or whatever. So I was hired by this woman, Dana. Larry didn’t know my first name. I was hired to bleach teeth in the spa. And when I had time, I was allowed to go to the office and observe Larry and the other dentists actually doing dentistry. And this was my first job that I actually quit residency for. So I was in residency, and back then it wasn’t . . . You didn’t have to come. You didn’t have to do a GPR. And I quit residency. It was like this huge thing at NYU because they get money from the hospitals, every person that goes to residency. I could have gotten sued. And again, everyone around me told me, “Do not do this.” I remember Dennis Tarnow was like, “You’re making a huge mistake.” I still have the voicemail. And I did it. And I was like, “Making a mistake? No, I’m going to be Larry Rosenthal’s partner and then I’m going to buy his (practice).” I mean, if you ask my friends from dental school, they all knew what this was going to happen. Everybody told me I was insane, but it was without a doubt, that was going to happen. But the interesting thing is—so I went in, and I was treated awfully. I mean, Larry didn’t know my name. The other guys there were very jealous and competitive, all vying for Larry’s attention because everyone was associates. There was never a partner in that office. And there have been all these horror stories that Larry used people up and spit them out. No one ever is getting partnership, and so on and so forth.
Dr. Michael Apa: So, I remember one of the guys there—who was there for ten years or so before I had gotten there—sat me down one day and said, “Listen, if we wanted a good-looking young kid in a suit to be here, we could bring my 10-year-old son in. You know nothing about dentistry, so why are you even here?” And I remember telling him, “Well, I’m going to be his partner and buy the office, someday. So that’s why I’m here.” But it was that naiveté that has always worked for me. I became friends with Larry, and it was not easy. Like I said, for the first six months, he didn’t know my first name, but I was young and I have always been the same person, and I had a real thirst for life. And Larry was 30 years older than me, and he loved to have fun as well. So I would take him out every single night after we would get done working. And slowly but surely, I worked my way into becoming—he’s my best friend to this day. But when you ask if it was stressful, it was. I had back surgery at 29, and I’ve never had an injury in my life, and it was 100 percent from stress. What used to happen was, Larry got into a . . . As wonderful as he is, he also was the king, and if he didn’t feel like doing something, he just wouldn’t do it. Many times, patients from all over the world were flying in and Larry wanted to go play golf, or didn’t like the patient, or just didn’t want to be there. And he’d say, “I’m not treating him. You go treat him.” I was treating royal family members in Europe, and people that were flying in to get their teeth done. And there I was [inaudible] spiky hair, and I was in tight clothes and a suit, shirt, and tie. And I would get in there and they’d be like, “Who the hell are you?” And I’m like, “Oh, I’m Dr. Apa.” And they’re like, “Well, you look like you’re in dental school. Where’s Larry?” You know, that was the big joke. “Where’s Larry?” You know, we would say it all the time. So I used to have to convince patients that I was competent, and I would treat them. And that is how I learned how to do cosmetic dentistry.
Rick Cohen: Amazing. We’re coming now to the end. I want to ask a couple of quick questions for you. What would you say are two must-have products for dentists these days? Not the obvious ones like gloves and masks or whatever. But what are a couple of products that you think that cosmetic or general dentists who are looking to do more cosmetic work, should all have?
Dr. Michael Apa: A good camera. LuxaFlow.
Rick Cohen: LuxaFlow? Yeah, very good. You mentioned podcasts earlier as we talked, podcasts that you listen to. What are some of the podcasts that you’re listening to these days and you really like?
Dr. Michael Apa: Dax Shepard has a really good series.
Rick Cohen: Yeah, it’s good.
Dr. Michael Apa: It’s really cool. And then I listen to Dr. Death. I don’t know if you’ve heard that.
Rick Cohen: I listen to that one, too.
Dr. Michael Apa: Unbelievable.
Rick Cohen: Unbelievable. I totally agree.
Dr. Michael Apa: Yeah.
Rick Cohen: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Dr. Michael Apa: I’m still in my twenties. I would not change anything. All of the things that have happened in my life have been magical. So, I would give him the same. I think there’s one thing that people—and I’ve grown up with it—that have a lot of self-doubt, and they’re always comparing themselves to others. It’s really a great place when you get over that, and you don’t create that in your own mind, you’re able to just be yourself. And so, if I would tell my 20-year-old self something, it would just be to follow really the path that you’re on and stop looking left and right as to what other people are doing because you’re going in the right direction.
Rick Cohen: Would you say that the best years for dentistry are behind us, or would you say they’re ahead of us?
Dr. Michael Apa: Ahead of us. 100 percent. Technology is changing the way we do dentistry. I think that the world is so much more connected in terms of how the rate of growth of really every industry, but it’s obviously in dentistry, as well. Think about cosmetic dentistry. The eyeballs that we get on cosmetic dentistry just from the platforms that we have available to us. I mean, when I was coming up, there was nothing like this to be able to show people what we can do. So I think this is a really unique time, and it really is. I’m excited to see dentistry, the actual visit of dentistry, start to change. If you look at our chairs and what we use, and air-driven handpieces and things like that, I have a feeling that in the next 10 years or so that that experience is going to change.
Rick Cohen: Totally agree. And I mean we’re seeing a change on a month-to-month, year-to-year basis. So I completely agree with you. It’s changing every minute.
Rick Cohen: Well, Dr. Michael Apa, thank you so much for being on our podcast and being one of dentistry’s 32 most influential. I’ve really enjoyed the time we spent together. You far exceeded my expectations and I really enjoyed it. So thank you once again. And looking forward to seeing you at a dental show soon.
Dr. Michael Apa: Thank you.
Rick Cohen: Bye-bye.
Dr. Michael Apa: Take care.