Oral medicine specialist Shao Yongxin has always been fascinated by the artistry and technical expertise involved in the practice of dentistry.
The standards of excellence demanded by the profession and Dr Shao's willingness to strive for perfection in his craft were catalysts for his 30-year journey in stomatology, a science that deals with the mouth and its diseases.
"I felt that dentistry, prosthodontics in particular, offered limitless space for me to constantly improve myself and hone my skills," he said.
"At the same time, as my patients found hope and obtained relief through their treatments, I discovered joy, meaning and a sense of achievement."
The 56-year-old was born in Shenyang and began his career in 1980 as part of the attending staff at the Shenyang Shenhe Dental Disease Prevention & Cure Clinic in China's north-east Liaoning province. He was appointed as a dentist six years later.
In 1993, he joined the Shenhe District No 6 Hospital as head of stomatology, and treated patients with only a nurse and a dental chair.
"At that time, the reform of the city's hospital system was still in its infancy," said Dr Shao.
Aoxin's current market capitalisation.
Estimated value of China's dental treatment market, according to Dr Shao Yongxin.
He graduated with a professional certificate in stomatology from the Shenyang Shenhe District Health Improvement School and Shenyang Dental Skills Training Centre.
"To pursue my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, in 2002, I made a bold decision that made many people break out in cold sweat on my behalf: to take over the management of the hospital."
After his personal investment vehicle, Shenyang Aoxin Industrial Co, was awarded the rights to manage and operate the facility, Dr Shao took on the position of hospital director. This was a watershed event that led to the birth of Aoxin Q&M Dental Group.
Right from the start, Dr Shao, who also holds a master's of business administration from Jilin University of Technology, focused on the adoption of new, innovative dentistry techniques including photo-sensitive fillings and veneers. "I knew these technologies would be vital to the development of the group, and true enough, they proved to be instrumental in Aoxin's initial success," he said.
Dental care in China was quite a new concept then. To create public awareness, he carried out promotions including talks and educational campaigns. "Our hard work and patience paid off. Many patients chose Aoxin for their dental care, and between 1994 and 1995, the group expanded six times. That was when the Aoxin brand began to sprout."
Next, he focused on laying the foundation for the group's expansion and strengthening its competitive edge by building an ecosystem - comprising dental schools, research centres, and equipment and materials sales units.
In 1997, Aoxin set up its own clinical research system through dental technology centres that carried out independent research projects, focusing on dental prostheses including dentures, crowns and bridges.
Two years later, it became the main distributor for Ivoclar Vivadent AG's dental products in China, and developed 10 more dealerships with other oral and dental companies, including KaVo, Bredent and Smile Line.
"This supply chain enabled us to extend our footprint and entrench our position, while seizing relevant opportunities," said Dr Shao.
In 2014, Aoxin Dental Hospital formed a joint venture with Singapore's Q&M Dental Group, which had acquired Panjin Jincheng Dental Clinic, Panjin Jinsai Dental Clinic, Gaizhou Aoxin Dental Hospital, and Shenyang Lanhai Tongmao Medical Equipment Co.
These acquisitions resulted in the 2016 plan to build a stomatological hospital in Panjin, Liaoning province. While these plans were in gestation, Aoxin Q&M Dental Group listed on the Singapore Exchange's Catalist board in April last year.
Aoxin has a market capitalisation of more than $74 million. Its shares have held steady at its initial public offer price of 20 cents.
The group provides a comprehensive suite of general and specialist dental services through 11 dental centres - four dental hospitals and seven polyclinics - across four cities in Liaoning province.
It also owns a dental equipment and supplies distribution network spanning three provinces in northern China. It has about 300 professionals, including dentists, dental surgery assistants and lab technicians, on its staff.
The majority of its dental centres are accredited as designated medical institutions of medical insurance, which raises their attractiveness to customers as their public medical insurance accounts can be used to pay for treatments.
Aoxin has also collaborated with Jinzhou Medical University to provide instruction and training to students and dental professionals, which resulted in some of its dental clinics becoming designated training centres. "Such collaboration ensures we are on the cutting-edge of dental and oral health developments, and have first access to promising dental professionals," said Dr Shao, who has been group CEO since February 2017.
Undoubtedly, the outlook for China's dental treatment market remains bright. "The market is valued at about 60 billion yuan (S$13 billion). With China's large population, strong demand for medical services, and growing awareness of oral health, we have a huge market that is projected to expand by more than 25 per cent annually," he added.
According to market research firm Whitney Consulting, despite obvious demand for dental care services in a population of over 1.3 billion, the sector remains underdeveloped. There are only 100 dentists in China for every one million people, versus 500 to 1,000 dentists in the United States or European Union.
The Direct China Chamber of Commerce in the Netherlands expects explosive growth in China's dental care industry, with the market entering a "golden age" from 2017 to 2021. By 2020, the value of the oral care market is projected to rise to as much as 100 billion yuan, while the dental equipment and products market could be valued at more than 400 billion yuan.
To stay ahead of the curve, Aoxin is focused on anticipating the market's future needs. One area is treating babies, toddlers, children and young adults through its paedodontic centres.
In the near term, the group's priority is to build a dental hospital of international standards. It intends to expand organically as well as through acquisitions, joint ventures and partnerships.
"Our M&A philosophy is centred on assimilating the target company into the group, and creating synergies that allow the target company to grow profitably, in a stable manner," said Dr Shao. "This is done by injecting resources and providing management assistance."
Following its initial public offering, Aoxin has acquired Shenyang QingAoMei Oral Restorative Technology Co, one of the largest providers of custom-made dental prosthetic devices in north-eastern China, as well as Zhuanghe City Aoxin Dawei Dental Co, a dental clinic in Zhuanghe, Liaoning province.
Looking back on the past 30 years in stomatology, Dr Shao said he has yet to experience a dull day. "That's one thing I love about this industry: The possibilities are limitless, and new developments are always emerging - adding an element of surprise to the everyday."
•This is an edited excerpt from SGX's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a regular column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed companies. Previous editions can be found on SGX's My Gateway website www.sgx.com/mygateway