Kristi Crum’s short tenure at Rock Dental Brands in Little Rock hasn’t been quiet. Roughly a year after she was recruited to the firm as chief operating officer, COVID-19 made land and changed everything. And then in June of this year, Crum was announced as the company’s new CEO effective July 1, taking over for Rock Dental co-founder Merritt Dake, with whom she worked to navigate the firm through the pandemic.
Dake, who co-founded the dental practice management firm with his father, Dr. Mark Dake, will remain on the board and serve as a strategic advisor. Mark Dake remains on staff as chief dental officer. But the Rock Dental ship is Crum’s to captain now. It’s a natural transition for Crum and represents her first chief executive gig after a successful career as a member of executive leadership teams. She’s a 16-year veteran of Alltel and Verizon who held multiple executive positions with both telecommunications companies and even helped lay the groundwork for two Verizon patents.
The role with Verizon took Crum from her native Arkansas to the company’s corporate headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J., just outside New York. But the call of home was strong, and the Hendrix College graduate returned to Arkansas in 2018 as chief operating officer for Charles Morgan’s tech startup-turned-success story, First Orion.
Now at Rock Dental’s helm, Crum is determined to continue the firm’s impressive pre-pandemic growth. Launched in 2016, Rock Dental now encompasses four brands — Rock Family Dental, Impact Oral Surgery, Leap Kids Pediatric Dental and Westrock Orthodontics — employing more than 600 across 85 offices in Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.
Crum’s first missive upon sliding over to the CEO chair on July 1? Stay the course.
“Rock Dental Brands is in a very strong position and will continue to grow its multispecialty footprint to deliver on our mission to create access to quality oral health care,” she told Arkansas Money & Politics. “You will not see sweeping changes, but you will continue to see investment, evolution and innovation in our patient experiences and our people.”
Rock Dental’s model is familiar ground in the medical practice industry but relatively new to dental. It consolidates and manages every aspect of a dental practice, comprehensive administrative support such as billing, human resources, IT, compliance and much more. Everything but the actual treatment. Krum described Rock Dental’s services, modestly, as robust.
“Where Rock Dental Brands differentiates is our focus on compliance and quality,” she said. “We administer the most comprehensive peer-review program where affiliated doctors share, discuss and evaluate each other’s clinical performance. Our goal is to have the most advanced systems for tracking and measuring quality as we continue to evolve the patient experience. This collaborative approach to treatment creates innovation in care and leads the way in our mission to create greater access and outcomes in the communities we serve.”
Crum worked closely with Dake to map out a strategy once COVID hit. They accounted not just for short-term survival but planned for long-term growth.
“Our industry, like most, was rocked by the events of 2020,” Crum said. “We decided on the front end to take a leadership stance. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were all in unfamiliar territory as we waited for government agencies to provide direction. We knew there was too much risk in waiting, so we made the bold decision to shut down our clinics to protect our employees.”
Crum and the leadership team used this time to open emergency dental clinics offering dental services regardless of ability to pay with a goal of keeping dental emergencies out of overburdened emergency rooms. She said opening the emergency clinics helped prepare Rock Dental for operating a business during a shutdown.
“We also leveraged the time to reframe our business and build new capabilities. When we were able to safely bring our staff back, our business was stronger and better than before the pandemic. A special thank-you to our team who worked countless hours to reimagine and rebuild a stronger Rock Dental Brands.”
Crum spent almost four years at Verizon corporate in New Jersey, leading, in turn, its channel and distribution strategy, consumer wireless products and finally, content operations. This, after multiple years of other leadership roles at Alltel and then Verizon. And during her 15 months at First Orion in 2018 and 2019, the company planned and began construction on its new corporate headquarters anchoring Argenta Plaza in downtown North Little Rock.
Crum is ready for her turn in the captain’s chair. Her experience has prepared her to lead, beginning with her time at Alltel, Joe Ford’s homegrown telecom firm that grew into one of the nation’s top wireless carriers before its sale to Verizon for $28.1 billion in 2008. Many Arkansas business leaders got their start with Ford at Alltel and laud the company for its outstanding culture. Crum got her start at Alltel in 2001.
She wants to model the Rock Dental corporate culture on her experiences at Alltel and Verizon, and even jokes that Alltel still has a cult following among former employees.
“The traits I learned there around humble leadership — passion for exceeding customer expectations and accountability — prepared me for my next chapters at Verizon, where they had a strong you-touch-it-you-own-it mentality, and there was no room for lazy leadership,” she said. “The sentence that all Verizon team members are engrained with is, ‘We know our best was good for today — tomorrow, we’ll do better.’ It is a high-performance environment that encourages you to continuously evolve, and that has served me well over the years.”
A strong corporate culture is an “obsessive focus” at Rock Dental, Krum said. “We have a mission to improve the communities we serve, as well as maintain the family feel each and every day.”
Krum credited others whose influence helped place her in a position to go from executive leadership role to executive leader, period.
“I need to write a book on that topic alone,” she said. “A good reminder — you may be doing something small for someone, but for that person, it may be life-changing. I would be amiss if I did not recognize Merritt Dake, who patiently taught me this industry, as well as showed all of us at Rock Dental Brands the importance of not thinking incrementally, but making big bets. After all, he made a big bet by hiring me and now entrusting me with Rock Dental Brand’s next chapter.
“I would also thank [former Verizon EVP] Marni Walden who does not talk about the need for more diversity in the workforce, she actually does something about it. She has helped countless numbers of women I know. She modeled great and expected the best. When I was interviewing for the region president role at Verizon, I received an email from her in the middle of the night making recommendations on how to prepare for the interview. The EVP of a Fortune 15 company has many demands on their shoulders, and her willingness to stay up late and assist me will never be forgotten. She is fearless and a force for women.
“Last is a lesson in being a great colleague. Allisa Van Volkom approached me on my first day in a new role at Verizon and said, ‘You don’t know me yet, but we will be best friends.’ She took me under her wing and invested countless hours helping me. Many people devote time to managing up and miss the opportunity to create a strong peer network.”
The growth trajectory of Rock Dental Brands may have flown under the radar for many Arkansans. But the firm is an emerging player on the Arkansas business scene. Chances are, many Arkansans drive by a Rock Dental clinic every day. Readers of Arkansas Money & Politics recognized Crum’s legacy of leadership, though, voting her to AMP’s second Future 50 list, which recognizes Arkansans poised to make a difference in their fields.
Simply put, Crum wants her Rock Dental team to keep doing its thing.
“Leadership is not a title. In fact, the best leaders don’t need a title at all to lead,” she said. “Great leaders inspire, demand, develop and unleash the best, and then they get out of the way. You will be amazed at what you will get in return.”
READ MORE: Crum Named CEO for Rock Dental Brands