`We called our bank manager St Peter because he had enough faith in us to take huge risks'

Marilyn Orcharton has a consultancy that specialises in quality standards for the service industry, but her first success was Denplan, the dental pre-payment scheme
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The Independent Online
We got some of our biggest business breaks from people feeling sorry for us. When we launched Denplan in 1986 we invited the great and the good of dentistry to a presentation at the Guild Hall in Winchester. Our lawyer had been ill two weeks earlier, so he wasn't able to speak. And our accountant, who was supposed to talk for two hours, cried off sick two minutes before we started. The local MP, John Browne, seemed terribly plausible but he hadn't done his homework. He went on and on about orthodontics, which wasn't included in our package. It was a disaster. The dentists were snickering, but they must have felt sorry for us; we signed up 50 general practitioners.

A few years later I was invited to give a speech to the Irish Dental Association at a meeting in Marbella. It soon became apparent I was only there so they could claim the meeting had a scientific content for tax purposes. Rather than rent a room for pounds 50 they wanted me to give my address in a corner of the cocktail bar. I didn't know whether to cry or bite the bullet. Afterwards I signed most of them up, again because they felt guilty.

I had qualified as a dentist in 1966, but didn't set up my own practice until 1974. The village we lived in, Eaglesham, was growing and so did the practice. But while I was building it up I also did other work, including two days a fortnight with the Medical Defence Union.

I got the idea for Denplan when I was working at the MDU in London. One of my colleagues, Stephen Noar, said he asked his patients to pay pounds 1 a week towards their private dental care. There were lots of complaints in those days because people didn't understand how the health system worked. The dentists only got paid for filling teeth, not for keeping you healthy, so they wanted to do as many fillings as they could. And the government had been gradually raising the fees charged directly to the patients. Dental health was causing dental problems. Stephen's plan solved both.

I sat down one night and wrote a letter about it to the Dental Association. My husband asked why I didn't just do it myself. I called Stephen and we formed a board of directors with my lawyer from Glasgow and his accountant from Poole. At first we thought we could do it on Saturday mornings and carry on with everything else during the week, but it took up more and more time.

The first thing we did was market research, which cost us pounds 10,000. We commissioned discussion groups with patients and discovered that while they liked their own dentists, they distrusted others. They worried how they would know a dentist wasn't just taking the money and not providing the care. They wanted some form of policing to ensure they got a good service, which we took care of by setting up a peer review system.

Getting finance was difficult. We put in pounds 40,000 each initially, mine from selling my practice. The Bank of Scotland turned me down flat for a loan because I'm a woman. But we found a manager at Midland who would back us. We called him "St Peter" because he had enough faith in us to take huge risks. But our overdraft still rose to pounds 250,000 and we realised we would have to bring in venture capitalists.

We talked at length to CIN, which used to come under the coal board, but they said they couldn't invest because Arthur Scargill was on their board and didn't approve of private health plans. Then we spent another six months talking to Advent. On the morning we were due to sign the documents, Stephen opened a letter from the DTI telling us to cease trading because we were operating as an insurance company. By the time we got it sorted out it had cost us pounds 10,000 in legal fees. But we did get pounds 850,000 from Advent in the end.

We almost went under during the negotiations, though. And even after we got the venture capital we were on a shoestring. We didn't even draw salaries for the first four years. My husband said he didn't want to know how much I was in for. He just kept supporting me and the family. Just as I had run out of money, TSB offered me a credit card with a pounds 5,000 limit which saved my life and kept me solvent.

We couldn't sell direct to the public because their dentists had to be willing to accept the plan, so we aimed all our marketing at the dentists. We drove around the country giving seminars, and sometimes I didn't get home until three in the morning. Dentists are very wary of taking a risk, and we were breaking new ground. But eventually we got a sufficient number signed up and it started to take off.

The company weathered the recession well, partly because it's such a small amount of money that patients have to pay. It currently saves the Government about pounds 30m a year. By the end of 1991 Denplan had grown quite a lot and seemed financially secure. But there was a possibility that a new Labour government would have changed the dentists' NHS contract. The whole thing looked a bit fraught. When Foreign & Colonial, another venture capital firm, asked if they could buy in, I decided to sell. I remember telling my daughter, a struggling architect, and even though I had made pounds 1m from the deal, she was very disappointed. "That will take all the fun out of life," she said. At least I know I brought her up to value what's important in life. I reinvested the money in a new business, so she's still having fun.

Entrepreneurs are essentially busybodies who think they can do something better than anyone else and then do it. I suppose I have two pieces of advice for other people going into business: do your market research and get the right bank manager. Otherwise your business will fail.