Changing of the (mouth) Guard: Two orthodontists pass the baton to the next generation

About a year ago, Spencer Crouch (middle) started talking with Dr. Bill Northway (left) and Dr. Bob Portenga, paving the way for a deal that amounts to a passing of the baton, a merger, and a business acquisition all in one.

For the first time in 16 years, a new orthodontist is setting up shop in Traverse City.

Spencer Crouch, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Graduate Orthodontic Program, is taking over two northern Michigan orthodontic businesses under the banner of Up North Orthodontics.

His arrival signals the retirement of two long-time orthodontists in the area – Dr. Bob Portenga and Dr. Bill Northway – who together had more than 80 years of orthodontic experience.

Portenga opened his practice, located on Munson Avenue, in 1973. Northway started his, on West Bay Shore Drive, in late 1979. Northway also had satellite offices in Beulah and Grayling, the latter of which is no longer operating. As of Labor Day, Crouch has consolidated the two practices into Portenga’s old building on Munson, closing the West Bay Shore Drive office. He will continue to operate Northway’s satellite office in Beulah.

Crouch, 29, is a native son with ties to both Northway and Portenga. Northway was his orthodontist growing up; his mother worked as office manager in the practice. Portenga, meanwhile, says that he saw Crouch for an initial consultation many years ago.

Crouch says those interactions led him down the path that brought him back to his hometown. “I knew I wanted to go into orthodontics way back in seventh grade or so, when I was going through braces myself,” Crouch said. “I always wanted to go into the health field, wanted to work with kids, but I didn’t want to be just a general family practice doctor. I wanted to do something a little more thought-provoking. I loved playing strategy games growing up, and to me, orthodontics was almost like a three-dimensional puzzle. Every person who walks in is unique, and you’re working with their teeth to make a beautiful smile.”

The retirements of Portenga and Northway and the arrival of Crouch signal the first major shakeups in Traverse City’s orthodontic scene since 2003, when Dr. Scott Schulz opened his practice. According to Portenga, it’s a moment that has been a long time coming.

“Most orthodontists retire much younger than I did,” Portenga said. “I mean, I’m 75 years old.” Portenga said that most people in orthodontics retire around 60 or 65, but his co-workers and patients made his work seem more like a hobby. “… (I)t was hard to give that up,” he said.

In the meantime, he mulled passing his practice on. “It’s a matter of finding the right person to come in and take over a practice. Not only somebody who can take care of things from a health standpoint, but also the right personality,” he said. “I think every orthodontic practice has its own personality, so you have to have the right person coming in.”

Northway, meanwhile, always had it in the back of his mind that Crouch might one day come in to take over.

“I followed him through his dental training, and once he got into orthodontics three years ago, we started talking about him possibly coming to join me,” Northway said. “There were a number of other options that he looked at, but ultimately, he and his wife decided to move back to Traverse City. And that was perfect, because it was about time for me to slow down. It was just a relationship that was meant to be.”

Crouch and his wife both graduated from Traverse City West Senior High in 2008, after which they attended Western Michigan University. Crouch did his four years of dental school at U of M, then stayed in Ann Arbor for three more years of orthodontics.

About a year ago, he started talking with Northway and Portenga, paving the way for a deal that amounts to a passing of the baton, a merger, and a business acquisition all in one.

Crouch graduated school in June, moved to Traverse City with his wife and their newborn baby over the course of a weekend, and started work the following Monday. He spent the summer working with both Portenga and Northway across their three offices – meeting patients and getting a hang of the day-to-day demands of running a practice. On Labor Day, Portenga and Northway officially bowed out, leaving Crouch as the sole owner and orthodontist for Up North Orthodontics.

“There’s been a lot of leadup,” Crouch said. “(Bob and Bill) have been great about getting patients excited about the hometown guy coming back to Traverse. It helps that I went through orthodontic care with Dr. Northway. He’s even had my before and after photo up on his wall for awhile, so it’s been fun chatting with patients and telling them my story.”

Crouch says the transition has been smooth and that he, Portenga, and Northway speak very much the same language when it comes to orthodontic procedure. Still, Portenga notes that Crouch is entering an orthodontics industry that is fundamentally different from the one he and Northway knew when they first started their practices in the 1970s.

“I probably have more hours of continuing education from over the years than what it took to get my education in the first place, and I went to school for 10 years,” Portenga said. “The way I practice now is entirely different from what they taught me in school. Keeping up with all that stuff is tough.”

These changes, Portenga thinks, will bring new challenges that Crouch – as the first of a new generation of orthodontists to put down roots in Traverse City – will have to contend with consistently. In particular, Portenga points to the example of “DIY orthodontics” – or products meant to help patients straighten their own teeth.

“It’s become more common for people to say, ‘Hey, I can take an impression on my own, send it in, and get these clear retainers, and then I don’t have to go to the orthodontist,’” Portenga said. “Some of the time, that will line up the teeth so that they look a little better. But the function, the way the teeth fit together, isn’t taken care of at all. It creates more problems rather than fixing problems.”

While both Portenga and Northway say they will be available to advise Crouch if he needs any help, both are looking forward to having more flexibility in their schedules. Portenga is looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren and potentially even coaching a few of their sports teams. Northway has orthodontic lectures lined up at numerous graduate programs throughout the country, from Napa to Atlanta.

Still, Portenga says he’ll miss the day-to-day work of his practice. “I can’t imagine a better job than spending a life making smiles,” he said.

As for Crouch, he’s glad to be home and glad to be joining a respected community of orthodontic practitioners. He says he’s felt welcomed back with open arms since his return in June – not just by friends and family, but also by patients and by the local dentists and orthodontists who will now be his colleagues.

“We look forward to welcoming northern Michigan’s newest orthodontist back to the area,” said Dr. Sara Bergsma, a local practicing orthodontist and the vice president of the area’s Resort District Dental Society. “As a Traverse City native and U of M graduate myself, it was a dream come true to be able to come back here and to live, work, and raise my family in this community. I have been blessed by every moment of it, and I wish Spencer the best.”