Wilkes alumnus Larry Cohen helped mold family firm into success
By Helen Kaiser
From its modest beginnings in a traveling salesman’s suitcase during the Great Depression, Benco Dental Supply Co., headquartered in Pittston, Pa., has developed into the nation’s fastest-growing dental supplies distributor, with more than 50 regional showrooms and five distribution centers.
Wilkes alumnus Lawrence Cohen ’57 has been along for much of the ride.
Now nearing 77, Cohen speaks with pride about the grit and ambition of his father Benjamin who, with a sixth-grade education, founded the company when it was simply about selling “picks, scrapers and forceps.” He recalls his own involvement beginning in 1959 and the growth and challenges that occurred when he was at the helm. And he conveys confidence in the future of the firm now managed by his two sons — the largest privately owned distributor of dental supplies, equipment and consulting services in the U.S.
From fluoride and sterilizers to clinic chairs and imaging equipment, Benco Dental provides just about anything a dental practice could need. It also offers dentists a full complement of services to enhance their practices: office design, equipment repair, practice coaching, financial planning, real-estate consulting, recruitment, clinical education, financing and dental-specific technology solutions.
Cohen says his father was an expert in sales, not the science of dentistry. As the eldest of seven children, it was up to Benjamin Cohen to help his immigrant parents support the family.
“Fortunately, my grandfather had a relative with a small factory in Philadelphia that made dental instruments. So my father, at the age of 19, packed up 100 pounds of samples and took them on the road—throughout Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Ohio,” Cohen says. From the combination of his first and last names, Benco Dental was formed.
In 1930 Ben Cohen decided to open a dental supply distributorship in what is now the Citizen’s Bank Building in Wilkes-Barre.
During the 1950s, Ben’s son Lawrence attended Wilkes and graduated with a degree in accounting. When he went on to graduate school at Columbia University he truly came to appreciate the value of his Wilkes education.
“I was as well prepared as anyone else at Columbia, and there I was with graduates of Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard and other Ivy Leagues. I had much more confidence in myself when I saw I was doing as well—and sometimes better—than the other students.”
After earning a master’s degree in management and finance and serving in the U.S. Army, Cohen joined Benco in 1959.
Since the business was tailored to meet the needs of a specific niche, “we didn’t have to sit around and wait for customers. We could go to them. We knew who they were,” Cohen said.
Cohen helped to grow the company’s footprint throughout the northeast. He was named president in 1969 and strategically began expanding the number of employees, showroom space and manufacturing lines offered.
In 1972 Hurricane Agnes devastated the Wyoming Valley, and the company’s operations were literally washed out. When the waters receded Cohen and the staff found dead fish in the front yard, mud and muck throughout the building and all inventory destroyed.
“I could have just walked away from it all and gotten another job,” Cohen relates, “but too many people would have been displaced and out of work; and I didn’t want that. I made the decision that somehow we were going to come back.”
It took months of hard, steady work on the part of the close-knit staff to recover. With no flood insurance coverage, Cohen said he took advantage of low-interest federal loans and insisted that suppliers replenish inventory at no profit mark-up.
Benco salesman Don Sullivan, who has worked for Cohen for 40 years, said the flooding crisis was a turning point for the president of the company.
“When you can recover from something like that you lose all your fear. You’re willing to take calculated risks and make other changes throughout your life,” Sullivan says.
As a company leader, Cohen was inspirational, Sullivan says. “He would never ask you to do something he wouldn’t do himself. You wanted to do good for him.”
A “ton of fun” to be around, Cohen often ad-libbed holiday messages on his employees’ telephones; but he was serious when it came to doing what was right for the customer, Sullivan says. “I think customers could sense his integrity.”
Cohen says he learned it was important to treat customers well from his father, who died a few months after the devastation of Hurricane Agnes.
“I was very blessed that both my sons decided to follow me to Benco,” he said. “It’s fun to be involved with your children in business. There’s always something to talk about.”
Even Cohen’s wife, Sally, worked at the company in various roles throughout the years.
As for the family relationships, Cohen says, “There might have been a downside, if we were all making the same pot of soup. But everyone worked in completely different areas and had confidence in each other.”
In 1994 Cohen partially retired because of health issues. He credits this generation of Cohens with the company’s advance to a nationwide presence. Richard is involved in managing the facilities and internal operations. Charles, a Wilkes trustee, heads up sales and marketing.
In 2010 the company opened a new 272,800 square foot, ecofriendly headquarters and distribution center. It boasts the CenterPoint Experience—a sleek, extensive showroom, with 25 fully functioning “operatories,” and 14 digital x-ray machines where dentists can view and try out products from dozens of vendors. Last year a second CenterPoint Experience showroom was opened in Costa Mesa, Calif.
These days the senior Cohen is chairman and chief customer advocate for the firm. He says he fields about three to five inquiries a week from a customer base of about 30,000—perhaps a service call that was left wanting or a machine not operating the way it should.
“I’ll do whatever it takes. I might issue a credit on the service call or contact the manufacturer for a replacement. Customers like it when they can talk to someone with the authority to solve their problem,” he says.
With its mantra of delivering success “smile after smile,” the family-owned firm has evolved from its origins in a peddler’s suitcase to a company with a business volume of about $600 million annually.