Episode 7: An Interview with Amir Aghdaei, President and CEO of Envista Holdings Corporation
Chuck Cohen: Welcome, everybody! Thank you very much for being here again. Today, I am very proud to be here with Amir Aghdaei, the CEO and President of Envista Holdings Corporation —the spin-off from Danaher. Amir is an industry veteran and will share with us some of his observations and his personal life story. He’ll talk to us a little bit about influence in dentistry and life. Amir, thank you very much for being here today, and congratulations for being on our list of the 32 Most Influential People in Dentistry.
Amir Aghdaei: Thank you so much, Chuck! I really appreciate it.
Chuck Cohen: Anytime! Amir, tell us a little bit about your journey—where you started and how you ended up where you are today. You have a particularly interesting life story and I hope you would share it with us.
Amir Aghdaei: Of course, thank you! I’m an Iranian. I was born in Iran, in the suburb of Tehran. Many of my peers, parents, and education is a strong influence in getting as much education as possible. I went to college when I was 16 years old and graduated when I was 20.
Industrial engineering (is my) background. It was a norm at that time to join the military as part of the military service. This is when the war between Iran and Iraq started. I ended up being an engineering officer in the Iranian Army in the late 70s and early 80s. After that, I came to the United States to go to grad school. I got multiple degrees in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. And then here with Packard, I came to campus, interviewed (grads), and ended up being part of Hewlett-Packard and got my MBA.
Amir Aghdaei: It started in the life science area—gas chromatography, liquid chromatography, massive spectrometry—and a variety of roles in manufacturing, marketing, and sales. I ended up going to Europe. I was always fascinated, specifically at the time that wall was coming down. In the early 90s, I went to Germany and Holland for a few years. I came back to United States, in Denver, Colorado as part of the test and measurement of Hewlett-Packard. After getting married, I moved to Singapore in the late 90s—where the dot-com and wireless were booming. I was running a large wireless business. After the crash of dot-com, we ended up moving to Singapore. So we lived in Singapore for about four years. Our youngest was born in Singapore while we were there for a few years. And then, from there to Silicon Valley and eventually Danaher in 2007-2008—when we acquired Tektronix which was at the time the largest acquisition of Danaher. So been [inaudible] for quite some time and various roles in 2005. Almost more than five years ago I moved to the dental platform. I can tell you that this has been one of the most rewarding and fascinating jobs that I’ve ever had because of the impact that it has. It is quite a new journey. If you would have asked me, Chuck, 20 years ago, “Where do you see yourself?” I would have not at all envisioned being in dental and the role that I’ve been very fortunate and blessed. A lot of people that have influenced me along the way.
Chuck Cohen: Well, it’s interesting. I want to come back to the influence question. Let’s peel back the onion a little bit on your life story. What was it like to be in college at 16 in Iran and how did that go? Tell us a little bit about that—it sounds like it was quite an adventure.
Amir Aghdaei: As you can imagine, being a lot younger than everybody else, you were always treated with a little bit of a “geek.” (I’ve never) been in the profile—I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t drink, I couldn’t do any of that stuff. It took a few years being in college but I was intellectually curious, I was really good in Mathematics. Whatever shortcoming I had—under personal and popularity—I am compensated for it through education. People befriended me because they thought I could help them with school homework and other places. I always had friends that they saw benefit through association. Over time, I ended up finding like-minded people—people that saw the work that I did. We became friends. I’ve been friends with (them) for over 40 years now. Through that process you become a little bit shy, a little bit introverted. And then, you find your own footing after time, a little bit more and more as you gain confidence. But it was quite a journey. This is at the end of that time, in University in Tehran, where the revolution happened in Iran, I think we were the last group of people who graduated during (the Charlestown regime). So (there was) quite a change taking place during that time. Can you imagine being young and hot-headed? A little bit you always have grand ideas that you’re going to change the world and do all of that without knowing the realities of what it would take to get things done.
Amir Aghdaei: I look back at it and see every step through that process. It has been a really interesting step in finding yourself becoming more mature, becoming more experienced. I don’t recommend it—yes, you can do all of that—but I cherish it for what took place.
Chuck Cohen: What was it like to leave your home country and come to the United States? Especially after the 1979 revolution when Iran and the United States were not quite getting along.
Amir Aghdaei: Exactly! At the time, even the hostage crisis, it was quite by accident. I can tell you that. But you know what I found? The news you hear and headlines (were) ingrained in the people. The middle class, the people who went to college were educated; they always had this affinity towards the west—the music, the style, the fashion, the role models that have always been there. I remember the day that JFK was shot, the whole country shut down. I was in school, my grandmother came in and pulled me out of the school and took me home because there was a square in Tehran that was called “Kennedy.” So, there is this affinity, this kind of a love toward this notion of America as a “land of freedom” that was always there. There were a lot of animosities as well towards some of the other pieces. I was educated in more of a western style of education. When I came here and I went to Atlanta at the time, I had this prenotion that I was not going to be accepted. But whoever I met, wherever, whatever community I became part of, I found it to be caring, loving, and open. A whole lot of, as i said, the “headline versus what is taking place,” there was a huge discrepancy between the two. I found it to be easy to get integrated. I found it to be well-versed in this whole lot of changes. In the early 80s in Atlanta, also a lot of people were moving to the city. It was shifting and changing. Andrew Yang, at the time, was the mayor of the city. He came back as the Ambassador under Jimmy Carter to the United Nations. Imagine the first black official and mayor. He had a serious attempt in creating that diversity in the city. So in that vibrant city, we found a lot of people came for opportunities there. I found it to be quite an interesting phenomenon. For the first time, being in America that was probably by far the best place that I could have imagined to be.
Chuck Cohen: Do you miss your homeland?
Amir Aghdaei: The whole family started moving out piece by piece. Some already left. Some estimate that, at the time of the 33-34 million people, about a million people left Iran in the first 10 years of that. On one hand, you knew that things were not getting better and it was a whole lot of complexities. On the other hand, you were thinking . . . I remember my grandfather was telling me, “This is going to take generations before (this war ends.) You either have a choice to just stay and go through it and have a choice to create a better life for yourself and for your kids and for your grandkids.” So with that, you feel like “I went to war for that country. Your homeland is where you want to make an impact, make a difference.” More and more, you felt that you were an outsider, you were not fitting into the norm and that was quite a difficult journey. I tried to kind of bridge the gap for a long time. But there are many different ways to do that and try to kind of maintain, make an impact, and be positive about it. But over time, I married an American, my kids consider themselves American, you lived in different parts of the world, you recognize that you can make an impact wherever you are. It doesn’t necessarily have to be where you grew up or where you were born. There is obviously an affinity toward being Iranian, being from that culture, which I would never lose. I always wear it as a badge of honor. But I try to kind of recognize the realities of where we live well.
Chuck Cohen: You said before that, there have been a number of people who have been influential with you. Influence is the theme of the podcast, right? Talk a little bit about those people who have influenced you. You mentioned your grandfather a few minutes ago and it sounds to me like he shared a lot of wisdom with you in a very short sentence or two.
Amir Aghdaei: Yeah, the guy is a well-educated man even though he was religious but not a fanatic. He was very much into helping and making an impact in the community. The door of the home that I grew up was open all the time whoever needed help they just walked in and they were welcome. That made an impact on me from that perspective. As you learn more and more, you go forward, you meet people like Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore. I found them to be an inspiration of creating something that stands today as “a beacon of hope and equality”—one of the best possible examples that you can look at. I’m a guy who’s very into perseverance. Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Everest—I think about it at the time with limited gears and such to go do that. Set your sight, that’s what I want to do, go after it and try to get that done. These characters are the one that I have always tried, not to necessarily model myself against them, but try to learn from. The Dalai Lama is another example. I hope I had to hit patience and the emotional intelligence that he has. I am trying to kind of see, learn, watch, and try to exhibit some of those behaviors to the best of my ability being authentic of myself. I tried to learn some of these best behaviors and things, and tried to replicate it in a very natural way.
Chuck Cohen: Interesting! Well, your journey has been very interesting. Talk a little bit about your dental journey. My recollection is you were sort of “accidental to dental.” It wasn’t intentional, like “I grew up in dental.” So, talk a little bit about how you ended up joining the dental division of Danaher.
Amir Aghdaei: Yeah, in Danaher that time, the Danaher leadership team we all had multiple roles to play. For example, even though I was the President of Tektronix, I also acted as Danaher President of Russia, and that gave me an opportunity. They put all the sanctions in there so at the time I managed and led the Danaher Innovation process. You play multiple roles that give you an opportunity to have influence or to learn the business. The last role I had before dental, I was running the Danaher Communication Platform. Through that process, we decided that we (were) going to join that communication company called Netscout and created a spin-off out of Danaher. As I was going through that, there were a whole lot of changes that were taking place inside dental. I really didn’t know much about it at all.
Amir Aghdaei: Through discussion at the time with Tom Joyce, Jim Lico, prior to Larry Culp, we got to a point that . . . “It is an opportunity. We think that your experience, your background would be a value on the dental side.” We knew we had some challenges in Europe as well, so we agreed for me to move to Germany. My family moved to Germany, we lived in Munich (because) [inaudible] is about an hour and a half from there. We traveled there together. We had an opportunity to live in Germany to become part of that process and then a whole lot of other changes took place that led one thing to another. I remember, I think I was talking to you, normally people come to dental and they never leave.
Chuck Cohen: That’s true. I’m an example. Here you are now. You’re never going to leave. Hotel California, that’s exactly right, you can go but you are never going to leave.
Amir Aghdaei: But since I’ve gotten here, and I mean this sincerely—the more I learn about it, the more I like it. I’ve been really fortunate that by accident, I ended up being where I am. By accident, we decided not to be an accident, but I didn’t plan to be a CEO of a publicly traded dental company. But that has happened, so for all of that, I’m blessed and I appreciate that every day and I’ll try to not to take it for granted.
Chuck Cohen: Let’s talk a little bit about influence. What does influence mean to you and where are some areas that you have been influenced and you influence those in your organization and how does that work?
Amir Aghdaei: For me, there’s a range in here that you tell people what to do and in some places honestly that’s what you gotta do. The house is burning, you don’t sit around and have a conversation. If there’s anything the past five or six months has shown us, it’s this: (exercise) leadership when it’s needed. You gotta act quickly to take the safety and help of your employees, your customers, and your shareholders in mind. But the influence is more of a “leading by example,” being a role model and demonstrating the values that you believe. If you continue to do that, if people see your intentions are genuine, you’re trying to do the right thing. I think you gain that followership and you get that influence that you desire either by intention or by default.
Amir Aghdaei: I have observed the people who have influenced me. As I said, I truly believe in this perseverance and intellectual curiosity—constantly watching and learning from people who are quite successful, who have done things. When I came to Danaher, I sat through some of the reviews of Jim Lico, the CEO of Fortive. He’s a really good example; Barbara Hewlett is also a really good example; Larry Culp, Tom Joyce, and many others. Yourself in dental. Many others are watching to see the passion about what they were doing, how they were trying to be helpful. I tried to kind of influence people and you can’t just read it, watch it, and repeat it. You got to internalize it. I’ve tried to get some of those best elements and try to internalize it, so I’ll make myself become the best version of myself on an ongoing basis. I consider myself “a lifetime student”—that I’m on a learning journey. I never believe that I have it all figured out or I have all the answers. I’m constantly open. For the people who know me, they know that I’m open for debate and open for discussion. When I make up my mind, I go do it. But I don’t do it because it is my idea, I do it because I believe this is the right thing to do. I tried to kind of pass the learning back and have a positive influence around myself as well.
Chuck Cohen: Can you talk about a time when you or Envista we’re really influencing where dentistry is going? Can you talk about a time where maybe today or maybe before where Envista and you, by definition, are really influencing dentistry in a big way?
Amir Aghdaei: Yeah. I can think of a couple of areas. I remember when we started getting into the clear aligner place and there were a lot of questions like: “It’s a huge market and you don’t have any presence. What makes you think that you can do anything different here?” We started sitting back and thinking about . . . “What needs are we trying to add to this?” “What (are those) unmet needs and how can we really create something different here?” And then we said, “Oh, it starts with the product! We got to make sure that the product stands on its own—it has all the qualities that the practitioner needs to say: “I’m going to create the best possible outcome.”
Okay, now that you have that, I call it the point of entry. You have to have that before you do anything. Now, start thinking about: “How do I make a difference?” How do I influence decision-making? It’s a combination of things—the care that you have for practitioners, for dentists, the care that you have for customers, the level of service, making yourself valuable and vulnerable, listening to feedback, listening to each outcome. And then continue to improve what you’re doing. Taking pride—I mean I can tell you, the [inaudible], they take pride in what they do. Every day, take it personally. You don’t have to tell them, take it personally. It’s my responsibility to do that. When people see that they are influenced by saying, “Okay, I get it. These people have so much passion, so much pride around it,” I think we are making a difference—we are influencing the orthodontist and the ortho, a small portion. We’re not suggesting we’re influencing in order to see possibilities, to see alternatives, and combination treatment and having more of a choice here. That’s one example of it and many other product categories, we look at it in that format.
Amir Aghdaei: But also you know there is another element in here. When it comes to the emerging market, when it comes to the high growth market, I take a step back and say: “Take a look at dentists per capita in Switzerland, Germany, US, and Japan.” And then I look at Latin America, 460 million people who have simple access to dental care. We got a responsibility. We, as leaders of this industry, have a responsibility by being present, by simplifying that, by democratizing it, by helping those people get some of these basic necessities. I feel like what we are doing in China is making an impact. It’s going our business obviously but you have to do good to see good things happen you have to do the right thing.
Chuck Cohen: It’s interesting to hear you speak in the last few minutes about the rest of the world’s emerging markets. Do you think that your background and your Iranian heritage has something to do with your passion for that topic?
Amir Aghdaei: Absolutely! I wouldn’t discount that at all. It’s about possibilities. When you provide possibilities, when you level the playing field, you’re going to see a different behavior—that means you limit options. I listen to injustice and inequalities and the things that are happening in the United States. If you level the playing field—I’m not suggesting that’s going to happen overnight and in one shot—if you give people possibilities that I have had, I think you’re going to see a very different type of behavior. I truly believe that bringing dental care offering in a diverse environment taking integration, diversity, and inclusion in your mindset, your debate operationalizing it has a positive impact. Because you give people a chance to be the best of what they can be. I think I received it. I know it’s been an exception, but you can create those exceptions more and more. We have an opportunity now to create those exceptions and normalize it rather than one of a kind.
Chuck Cohen: Interesting! Let’s switch a little bit while still talking about influence. Talk a little bit about the product side. So, the question is: when we look at the 32 Most Influential list, right there are people like Gordon Christensen who influenced their ideas. And then there are people like Joe Hogan who influence through Invisalign and the track record that they have. A couple people from the ADA and they influence through lobbying and ideas and organizing dentists together. And then we have five congressmen who are influencing by creating laws. You’re the CEO of a company that makes products. How is it that products can be influential—because when it’s all said and done, the bread and butter is Envista. Talk about the influence that these products have in a market like dentistry.
Amir Aghdaei: Yeah, that’s just a really good angle to look at. Again, coming from outside dentistry and say “Why is it that it is not available to everybody?” I go down the path—it’s just a hypothesis i don’t know how many facts to prove it—I think it is three reasons. I think it is skills. You look at 1.8 million dentists worldwide—that number is pretty limited, you got to go get a Bachelor of Science—you gotta go five years, seven years—it takes a long time to become an expert. It takes a lot of money to become a dentist, and 10-15 years of practice, and 20 years of oral surgery. It is very long. Skills are really important. The second one is about cost, it’s costly. A lot of (us) is out of pocket and it is not available to a lot of people because of the cost.
Chuck Cohen: Costly to the patient, you mean, (the cost of location)?
Amir Aghdaei: Exactly, location. Last year, in 2019, 20 million implants were placed worldwide in 12 million people. Can you imagine how many people can use an implant?
Chuck Cohen: Billions.
Amir Aghdaei: Can you imagine all of us at some point needed? Only 12 million people can afford it. They can, they’re qualified, they can do it, they can’t afford it. We think that penetration is five percent right and [inaudible]. And then you can call it fear, you can call it the pain, you can call it time to heal, but this is a complicated process. Getting an implant sometimes costs. It takes six to nine months to auto treatment. (At) eighteen months it’s uncomfortable, it’s painful. So, skills, costs, pain or time to heal.
Amir Aghdaei: I took a step back and said, “Well, how do you change it? How do you influence the industry, develop products, services, and software?” Let’s simplify. The skill takes the art, automates it, simplifies it, and I can talk more about it—what it looks like. Try to reduce the cost of treatment. If it is simple, you don’t have to go back on the chair over and over. You can reduce the cost. You talked about clear aligners, a great example of chair time reduction and then tried to get that healing time a lot faster to take the pain away. I look at at the very broad sense, what we do gotta influence these three things. Everything we do influences these three things to bring dental care to the masses. I can talk for days about these things because I honestly believe this is what it is—this is how you can influence industry.
Chuck Cohen: Can you give an example of a product that you have developed and made popular that checks those three things?
Amir Aghdaei: N1, it’s a new implant that is introduced in Europe—the outcome of five years and millions of dollars of investment. Many people have done such a good job with universities, with geopinion leaders. Why is that checking all those three [things]? It is much easier to place it, when it comes to the skills. You don’t need six or seven drills, you only need one or two; it’s much simpler. The cost of treatment is a lot less and I explained why. It causes a lot less damage—the RPM that is used on lewis rail is less than 50 RPM versus a thousand.
Amir Aghdaei: Chuck, you know this very well you’re sitting in there and a thousand RPM drill is going next to you. Your head, your body is shaking. I have sat in front of somebody who has placed an implant at the 50 RPM and the patient doesn’t even know it. There is no noise, you cause a lot less damage to the tissue to bone, the healing time is a lot faster, the chair time is a lot quicker. So it’s a product that checks all these. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who have been doing this for 20 to 25 years. But it takes 20 to 25 years to get. I was in Washington D.C., the OR surgeon that I really respect with two interns showed me what he has been doing versus the two interns. He showed me what those are able to do after 20 or 30 implant placement but the same quality. Imagine the possibilities that you can do that through automation, through robotics, through guided surgery, through Spark, through software, through DTX. You’re able to do that to bring costs down. Simplify and get better solutions. These are examples of how you can really change the nature of the industry.
Chuck Cohen: That’s exciting and really interesting. I think that many people, maybe who are listening, maybe who read our articles, sort of say, “Well, I understand why Gordon Christensen is an influencer. I have a little more trouble seeing how Amir Aghdaei from Dentsupply or Stanley Bergman from Shine—how those people who just peddle products can be influencers?” I think your explanation here was very helpful. I think that was very good.
Amir Aghdaei: Thank you!
Chuck Cohen: As we look out into dentistry, give us a little preview about what you think the next four or five years are going to be like. And, the follow-up question—I‘ll give you a heads up—how is Amir and the Envista team going to be influencing where dentistry is going?
Amir Aghdaei: Yeah. Happy to do it. We have a set of high assumptions about what we call macro trends in the industry. Top of that is IT for simplification. A lot of people talk about digitization, I talk about IT. You go to industries I come from: semiconductor, electronic industry, life sciences. I taught in those industries in the 70s, 80s, 90s. IT is collapsing into the dental industry now. We have seen it in the past six to nine months—virtualization, remote diagnostics, and remote capabilities. But also, a whole lot of IT in order to be able to do guided surgery suffer as an influence of any grading various images. IT is coming and it’s coming with force. The second part of this: I think this is becoming a female industry. What I mean by that is: it’s always been females. I’ve been the decision maker when I go to dentists but 60 to 65 percent, depending on some geographies, in Brazil is 75 percent of IT graduates out of a school are female. It’s by choice it’s not by accident. They want to have choices, they want a quality of life. These new graduates, these new females—they have a very different view of the industry than the previous generation. They want to have life choices, the advocacy and their brand loyalties are very different. The movement of the hand, how they do things. Females play an important role in this industry as its transitions over the next five or ten years. The emerging market, we talked about that and I think it’s going to be an important factor here. The middle class—more and more people are having access to the internet. And last but not least, I think DSOS are going to be an important factor in these industries because it’s becoming professionalized. They have their own procurement. The ID system they’re purchasing and it’s painful at the time but it is the right thing. Because if you take it to the suburbs, you take it to rural areas, you take second-tier, third-tier cities. In China, you take the public to the private piece. I think these are the macro trends impacting the industry. All right, take a step back and say, “Okay, that’s what’s happening. What am I going to do?” I’m answering the second question. I want to be exactly what I talked about on the skills, cost, pain or time to heal. I want to be ahead of that and I want to simplify it. I want to make it easier, to accelerate that process. I want to have a product that is not only reliable and meets the requirements—that’s the table of state, but it demonstrates proficiency, efficiency in the process. People see it, they buy it, they have a brand that they can depend on—it does exactly the clinical outcome that they want. I want to develop software and hold it together, bring it together, and simplify the process. You don’t go from one platform to the next. I want to create a workflow that depends on the procedure (and) has the best possible opportunities on the outcome. I want to provide the service—the training education to bring people up to speed; to let best practices to be shared as quickly as possible. I want to be in major metropolitan areas around the world. I want to democratize and make that happen. I want to give the people access to it. Doing the good thing for the industry will have a positive impact for us as a company and for the industry as a whole. This industry has decades, if not centuries, that run way ahead of it. And, we have a responsibility as CEOs and leaders of this industry to make that real; to make the hard decision; to create with equality and involvement of the minorities in the process. We have a responsibility; we have a role to play in here. I’m taking that very seriously, personally. Envista is taking it very seriously.
Chuck Cohen: Good for you. Follow-up question: if I gave you the proverbial magic wand and you can change one or two things about dentistry, what would you wave the wand and what would you change?
Amir Aghdaei: Technology. Technology adoption. I think that would accelerate things. I don’t necessarily all mean software and imaging. Technology in the use of procurement processes; technology in using patient data—enabling patients to go online and see their history. Technology that has the ability to really pay for things online. More technology coming in across the board and taking race statuses. We come from Danaher and the notion of continuous improvement when I see things, it really allows me to take a look at it. Say there is a better way of doing things. It may not be very popular but i’m going to say it, “You look at millions of dollars of equipment and offices sitting around the world and they’re not being used.
How do you make it? How do you get more and more use out of that asset and utilization?” It bothers me that you’re not getting that. How do you make it more available for people who need it—people who can’t afford building a million dollar office? I think technology, scheduling, remote make that available. If we can embrace that, all of us leaning a little bit, I think it would make a huge difference here.
Chuck Cohen: Well then, on that note, I think that’s a great place to sort of put a pin in it and stop, and say, Amir, thank you very much for being with us today. Thank you for taking the time to share some of your thoughts about being an influencer. Congratulations again on being one of the 32 Most Influential People in Dentistry. I’m proud to have you on the list. It’s very well deserved. So, thanks for all you do for dentistry and thanks for being here today.
Amir Aghdaei: Thank you so much, Chuck. I appreciate it.
Chuck Cohen: Anytime! Good bye.