Consulting Firm Aims Pitch at Dentists

Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution
Date: March 18, 1989

Consulting Operation Drills Dentists in Cult-Like Fashion, Critics Complain

Skeptics Cite Link To Scientology

by Gayle White, Staff Writer

A California-based consulting firm run by disciples of the Church of Scientology is staging a seminar in Atlanta this weekend, hoping to attract attention - and business - from 15,000 dentists in town for a convention.

The scheduling of the seminar at the same time as the Hinman Dental Association convention was a coincidence, said Larry Wiley, a spokesman for Sterling Management in Glendale, Calif. But "the timing made so much sense I thought somebody planned it."

Sterling Management, 45th on Inc. magazine's December list of the 500 fastest-growing firms in the nation, claims to teach medical professionals how to run the business part of their practices using management theories of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

But, according to two cult-watch organizations, Sterling is geared toward gradually involving medical professionals in the Church of Scientology.

"It's another one of Scientology's attempts to exploit people financially and to get them into the Church of Scientology," said Craig Branch, Alabama director of the Watchman Fellowship, an evangelical cult education group with offices in 11 cities. "It's not management training, It's Scientology."

"There's a great deal of crossover" between Sterling and the Church of Scientology "in terms of staff and materials and a great deal of emphasis in getting involved in the Church of Scientology," said Cynthia Kisser of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, a secular organization.

Mr. Wiley, who is himself a Scientologist, counters by saying the Cult Awareness Network is "a lunatic fringe group like the Ku Klux Klan," made up of "a shady group of people" who "don't know anything about running a dental practice."

The Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction author and entrepreneur L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, Is based on the theory that human personalities are clusters of spiritual beings stemming back millions of years and that earthly troubles result from "engrams," or painful experiences of past lives.

To solve problems, people must be "cleared," or counseled by Scientologists to face and overcome the difficulties of past lives. Some former Scientologists have said the clearing process can last as long as a person can afford to pay for counseling, ending only with financial destitution.

Whatever its connection with Scientology, Sterling Management has generated a tremendous response. The company had 1987 sales of $11.5 million with current sales of about $17 million a year, and has grown from eight staff members in 1983 to 110 in 1987 and 220 in 1989, Mr. Wiley said.

Deserves Close Look, ADA Says

Sterling also has prompted a steady stream of calls and letters to the American Dental Association, whose members are likely to be lobbied this weekend to consider its management seminar. "When something generates as many comments and questions as Sterling has, it deserves a closer look," according to a February article in the American Dental Association News.

Dentists who have participated in Sterling training vary widely in their assessment of its worth.

Joel Benk, 35, an Atlanta dentist with a degree from Emory University's dental school, sings the praises of Sterling's program, saying it increased his practice four-fold. Dr. Benk said he spent $16,000 on courses through Sterling but that his investment "doesn't compare to what it's worth."

Like many health care professionals, he said, he was trained to treat patients, not to run a business. Sterling inspired Dr. Benk to start Power Management, his own consulting firm, six months ago.

Dr. Benk, a member of Ahavath Achim, a Conservative synagogue, said he never felt that his Jewish faith was threatened by Sterling's relationship with the Church of Scientology. "Absolutely not," he said.

Birmingham dentist Jack P. Weiss, 33, and his wife, Laurie, 30, a dental hygienist, were so upset after spending a week and $12,000 on a Sterling course in California last Thanksgiving that they demanded a refund and contacted the Watchman Fellowship. Alter threatening to report the organization to consumer protection officials, they got their money back.

In response to what they described as hard-sell tactics at a three-hour introductory seminar, the Weisses signed up for a course in California and applied for a loan to pay for it.

Mrs. Weiss describes their week in California as "a horrible week, just horrible." The Weisses said seminar officials registered them at a hotel and told them not to rent a car. Sessions began early in the morning and continued until after 9 p.m., with two short breaks and two meals, they said.

"They get you out there, they isolate you, they don't let you talk to other people," Mrs. Weiss said.

Mr. Wiley denies that clients are told not to communicate, and said the long hours are to cram as much course work as possible into a week so that dentists are not kept away from their practices too long.

'Pressure Begins Immediately'

Pressure to sign up for more courses began immediately, Dr. Weiss said. "You meet with your personal consultant first thing, and he wants you to take more courses at $200 to $900 each, and buy extra books - $700 to $800 more."

Part of the Sterling program is personality testing and discussions about a client's personal life, they said. After such a session, Mrs. Weiss said she was told she needed to leave the next day for San Francisco and nine days of "clearing" in order to be a better mother to the couple's three children.

In their hotel room that night, the couple discussed whether she should go, she said. The next day, a Sterling official "had a full typewritten transcript of Jack and my conversation. The only way they could have gotten it was if the room was bugged."

Mr. Wiley said Sterling does not bug hotel rooms. "That would be a bald-faced lie," he said.

Although Dr. Weiss told Sterling officials that he was Jewish, he and his wife felt like they were being pushed toward Scientology, she said. "Absolutely, from Day One."

Mr. Wiley said that Sterling might recommend that a client work out personal problems with "a Scientology practitioner or another person the client trusts." But he said Sterling does not recruit people for Scientology. "We're not set up to do that."

Costs Range Up to $18,000

Sterling Management and similar firms adapt the cult movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the 1980s, with their emphasis on personal achievement in business or the professions, some experts say.

Sterling offers two kinds of seminars - an introduction to Mr. Hubbard's management principles for $95 to $125, and specialized courses. Mr. Wiley said. Participants are recruited through telephone calls and direct-mail advertising.

A program of courses usually costs between $5,000 and $18,000, "depending on the length of the program and how much consulting is involved," he said.

Sterling was founded by a dentist who used Mr. Hubbard's management theory in his own practice, Mr. Wiley said. Although the company is prohibited by law from asking the religious preference of its employees, a majority are "probably members" of the Church of Scientology, he said.

Cult watchers do not dispute that a certain amount of management training goes on at Sterling functions. They do question the price, the effectiveness and the ultimate purpose of the training.

"The point is, it is definitely controversial," said Tom Forehand of the Watchman Fellowship's Birmingham office. "People ought to do some extensive investigating betore committing $10,000 to $18,000."

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