Dr. Nikunj “Nik” Zalavadia took ownership of Smiles by Cranbrook a year ago.

Smiles by Cranbrook Dental is the latest practice Dr. Nikunj Zalavadia has bought, but it’s not going to be the last. That’s because he’s not done learning yet.

It turns out Dr. Zalavadia—Dr. Nik, actually—is not an empire-building capitalist. In fact, he’s turned down a few deals that would have put tens of millions of dollars in his pockets, were that the direction he wanted to take.

Instead, Dr. Nik buys dental practices specifically to learn how to be a better dentist. He won’t buy one from an owner who just wants to cash out. He only buys practices from long-practicing dentists who will stay around and show him how they do it.

The way Dr. Nik sees it, every dentist works a little bit differently. Which means each knows something he and others don’t. Maybe it’s a more efficient method of working, or a way to diagnose trouble, or a way of interacting with patients. But they all offer something new.

“I realized that if I buy just one practice, I’ll limit myself,” he said. “I wouldn’t learn anything about dentistry.”

And he does indeed seem to love it, even though he was a late-bloomer with dentistry. A very late bloomer. In fact, young Nikunj Zalavadia, born and raised in India, never even went to a dentist until he was in college.

Zalavadia came to the U.S. at 17 and studied computer science in college. A family friend who was a dentist asked him to come in to get a cleaning. That trip to the dentist changed everything. With a freshly polished smile, Zalavadia immediately understood the value of healthy teeth and switched the direction of his life towards dentistry. He finished his computer science degree at Rutgers University, with a biology minor, and applied to dental school at Temple. In 2009, he earned his DDM and set out to learn as much as he could about being a better dentist.

Since 2009, Dr. Nik has bought five practices in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area and one in North Jersey. He and his wife recently bought a house in Newtown, Pa., and a year ago, he bought Smiles by Cranbrook Dental at 2312 Whitehorse-Mercerville Rd. from Dr. Richard Federico (who is still practicing there, teaching Dr. Nik what he’s learned after a few decades in the field).

Dr. Nik said he plans to spend about half his time at the Hamilton office because he wants to stay close to his new home.

What he’s learned from these dentists is how to love dentistry, he said. And he’s learned that just going on the dental records in hand isn’t always enough to learn why someone is developing problems. One patient, he said, was fine, and then six months later had several cavities. The records showed no reasons why. But chatting with him about his habits eventually revealed that the last thing he did before putting his head on the pillow—after brushing his teeth—was take a shot of Nyquil to help him sleep. The issue, of course, is that Nyquil contains a lot of sugar, and it was all just sitting on his teeth overnight, eating them away.

“You don’t learn that kind of thing in dental school,” Dr. Nik said.

As for those millions he’s turned down? Well, investment groups like to buy dental practices from people who can buy new practices for them and keep the money flowing in. Dr. Nik has been approached at least three times with offers of $60 million, $75 million and $100 million. Each offer was rebuffed.

“I’m not in this for the money,” he said. “I make enough money. After you make a certain amount of money, it doesn’t change your life anymore. I want to know people. I want to build relationships with them.”

He also wants to be part of the communities he works in. Dr. Nik said he sets up science scholarships at area high schools near his practices and often sponsors sports teams.

So a note to anyone looking to buy Dr. Nik out: You won’t. Because he’s already found what he values the most.

Smiles by Cranbrook is located at 2312 Whitehorse-Mercerville Road, Suite 200A in Mercerville. Phone: (609) 587-0049.