Nothing but the tooth

Artists in dental design

by Heleigh Bostwick

contour1113In 2000, Pam Chicoine stepped out on her own to open Contour Dental Arts, making crowns, implant crowns, and ceramic restorations from her home in Huntington.

Pam Chicoine found herself in the unusual position of having to train her husband on the job. Her husband, John, also found it unusual ... and a bit difficult.

“It was quite a contrast going from being a foreman and telling people what to do to having a job where your wife is telling you what to do and having her say you’re not good enough,” says John.

But switch he did, and since 2000 they have worked together from their home office in Huntington as the owners of Contour Dental Arts. They make crowns, implant crowns, and ceramic restorations for the dental profession.

After graduating from high school, the Springfield native attended Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, but her time there was short-lived. “I was on a scholarship, but had to drop out after one semester because my family didn’t have the money for me to continue,” she explains.

Instead of returning to Vermont, she moved to Aspen, where she spent a couple of years skiing and doing odd jobs. Eventually she started working with a woman who designed a line of girls’ clothing called Bearwear.

“I worked with her, sewing, for a year and a half in Colorado before she moved her business to Bearsville, N.Y.,” she recalls. “I moved there, too, and worked for a few months, but it didn’t work out, so I ended up moving back to Vermont.”

She answered an ad for a trainee position as a dental lab technician at Champlain Dental Lab in South Burlington, and was hired. She remained there for two years before leaving in 1988.

“I was tired of the dental production work,” she says. “It was difficult to make a decent income without sacrificing quality.” She went to work for a holistic health center in South Burlington, but it wasn’t long before she was back working at a dental lab.

“I got a call from Vermont Dental Ceramics,” she says. “They paid really well, but it was very stressful. I had to produce 20 crowns a day and keep track of all the work.” Finally, after 10 years, Pam decided there must be a better way to do it, and in April 1998, she started Contour Dental Arts out of the basement of her home.

One of the driving forces behind working from home was being a parent. “It was really great to be home when the kids got home from school,” she says. The Chicoines have two children, a daughter, Rachael, now 29, and a son, Kacy, 25.

The spark for starting her own business was the death of her younger brother, who was killed in a car accident. “We were very close and I didn’t know how I was going to survive emotionally,” she recalls. “That incident gave me the courage to go out on my own. I thought, ‘What could happen that could be worse than that?’”

By June she had more work than she could handle.

“It was great, but I was working seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” she says. “I did that for a year and a half before I burned out.”

That’s when she approached John about working with her in the lab. “I knew the business could support us and it’s really hard to find someone like-minded — both precise and technical,” she says.

At the time, John was a licensed electrician with Peck Electric, where he’d been working since 1985. “I was stationed at IBM, but wasn’t really happy being in that location,” he says.

The couple had met in 1986 and married the following year, on June 12, 1987. “We were both renting in the same place in Winooski,” Pam says. “I was living downstairs and John was living upstairs. Our first conversation was in the laundry room; I followed him down there.”

A Winooski native, he had worked a variety of jobs following high school before finding his niche as an electrician. “I was ready for a new challenge.”

It took a bit of convincing financially. “Peck was a steady paycheck, but the benefits outweighed the negatives. On a personal level — being trained by your wife — well, I had to lose the whole ego thing,” he says. He quit Peck in 2000.

“It was about a year before I wasn’t doing most of the work,” says Pam. “I had to train John, but as time went on, he got better and better. Now, 13 years later, we split the work down the middle.”

“We have 12 dentists that send us work — our regular accounts,” she says. John Echternach, DDS, at Henniker Family Dentistry in New Hampshire is one of them.

“I started working with Pam and John in late 2011,” he says. “I was working with another couple here in New Hampshire who also had a home lab. When the husband’s cancer returned, they closed their lab and gave Pam and John’s name. They’re great to work with and do exceptional ceramic work.”

“We’ve been in a good place for a while, but during the recession in 2005, business was very, very slow,” says Pam, adding that they had to take out a small-business loan.

“Fortunately the business rebounded in 2006 and 2007, and the recession in 2008 wasn’t as bad as it was in 2005 when many of the smaller labs went out of business,” she says. “During that recession there was a surge of larger labs employing 200-plus people that were undercutting the small labs.”

The loss of those smaller labs benefited Contour Dental Arts, and the Chicoines ended up getting more accounts. “We’re a boutique lab, and when the recession was over, dentists wanted the better quality work,” says Pam. “We have patients that come to our lab for a custom shade match. They can’t do that with a big lab in California.”

Charles Seleen, DMD, is the director of Vermont Dental Care in Winooski. “I feel very fortunate to have qualified lab technicians available to me locally,” he says. “The work they do is superb and that’s why I use them.”

The Chicoines start their day around 8 and finish about 6. “Every day is different and we’ve both had our nights working alone,” Pam says. It generally takes about three weeks to complete each case.

They work only Monday through Thursday — a schedule they like. “We stay busy now that our kids are out of the house. I have a 120-gallon salt water reef tank and John builds electric guitars. He’s working on his second one right now. He’s played the guitar ever since I met him. He’s very artistic and a fine craftsman.”

Every year they take six weeks off. Ten days of that time is spent hiking and kayaking at Acadia National Park. “We get to see seals and bald eagles,” says John. This past May they traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula where they snorkeled with giant sea turtles.

“We also take a week every year and backpack the Long Trail,” says Pam. “We can only do 90 miles at a time, but this past July, we completed it for the second time.”

Fifty to 60 percent of their work involves a ceramic restoration called e.max, a lithium disilicate glass ceramic that is about four times stronger than traditional porcelain materials.

“We’ve done thousands of crowns using e.max,” says Pam. “They are beautiful and don’t break, and the dentists like those crowns because they are a fixed price.”

“We’ve been a certified e.max lab since November 2010,” John adds.

“Typically each crown is made with a gold alloy substructure, which is weighed to determine the cost,” explains Pam. “When gold was $1,800 an ounce, crowns were really expensive.”

The lab where they work today is a far cry from the 10-by-12-foot sectioned-off corner of the basement they started out in.

“We had to use daylight bulbs because the basement had no natural lighting,” Pam recalls.

In 2004, they took out a home equity loan and John built a 1,000-square-foot addition that included a garage, mud room, and a state-of-the art lab over the garage.

“We officially moved in April 10, 2006,” says Pam. “It was really exciting. The night before, which was a Sunday, we worked until 2 in the morning moving equipment, just so we could start in the new space on Monday morning.”  

They’ve also installed a 10,000-kilowatt solar energy system. “Our crowns are produced using 805 kilowatts of solar power,” she says. “We have three furnaces in the lab firing up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot of energy.”

“The solar panels have helped us out quite a bit,” says John. “It pays for itself, and when it’s paid for, we won’t have an electric bill when we retire.”

Retirement is not on the immediate horizon. “We are the business,” Pam says. “We could sell our accounts, but it wouldn’t guarantee the same results. Every aspect from billing to the quality of the work is directly related to John and me.”

Their plan is to scale back the work week from four to three days, and eventually two days a week.

“We have dentists retiring, so we could retire too,” she says. “Then again, we could get a call and continue to work four days a week until we are 70.”