For third year in a row, Mike McKeel will lead largest dental insurance company in state
by: John Klicker, Gresham dentist Mike McKeel demonstrates the new technology that allows him to show patients their X-rays or photos of their teeth on this screen, which is attached to the patient’s chair. McKeel was recently elected chairman of the ODS Companies, Oregon’s largest dental insurer.

The term 'chairman of the board' isn't exactly what comes to mind when you meet Gresham dentist Mike McKeel.

Open and easygoing with a penchant for dental hygiene and photography, McKeel seems more like a favorite uncle than a master of the universe.

And yet, when he's not practicing dentistry at his downtown Gresham office or developing award-winning housing complexes like Fairview's Salish Ponds cottages, McKeel acts as the chairman of the board for downtown Portland's largest private employer, ODS Companies.

The board of directors for the dental/medical insurance company approached McKeel about 12 years ago. The dentist had been a Gresham-Barlow School Board member for 20 years and the ODS board wanted someone who could get things done.

'I had been through a number of talks with the teachers' union,' McKeel says. 'I guess they thought if I could handle that, I could handle this.'

He could handle it all right. Seven years into his tenure on the board, he was elected vice chairman. He served as vice chairman for two years and then moved into the chairman position. Early last month, the ODS nominated McKeel to his third term as chairman - an unusual thing for the association to do.

'Normally, they rotate the position,' McKeel says. 'But they're going through changes, so they wanted someone with experience.'

McKeel's experience with the medical profession started in his youth. His mother worked for a family practitioner for decades - in the same building he's practiced dentistry in for more than 30 years, actually. And cleaning the bathrooms at his father's bar, the M and M Lounge, as a teenager disgusted him enough that he wanted a career keeping people healthy.

McKeel and his wife, Diane, a dental hygienist and executive director of West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce, have three children between the ages of 26 and 32. The two met in dental school, when McKeel asked Diane to go to a dance only after being rejected by the girl he wanted to take. She must not have been too offended - they've been married for 35 years.

ODS Companies employs 800 people, including 550 in Portland, 200 in Milwaukie and 55 in La Grande. The company has new offices in Medford and Anchorage, Alaska and recently opened the ODS School of Dental Hygiene in La Grande.

A $750 million company that has no shareholders can give back to the community, McKeel says. ODS supports programs like Oregon Hospice, The American Red Cross, The American Diabetes Association, Assistance League of Portland, Janus Youth Programs and many more. The charitable part of ODS appeals to McKeel. He also takes pride in the company's push for preventive health.

'ODS has the biggest heart in the business,' McKeel says. 'I wouldn't have lasted very long if they didn't.'

The largest dental insurance provider and fourth-largest medical insurance provider in Oregon, ODS counts as customers groups such as Oregon Education Association, the Public Employees Retirement System, the city of Portland and Les Schwab. The company covers more than 600,000 Oregonians and contracts with more than 1,800 dentists in Oregon.

McKeel believes that, within the next two or three years, ODS' revenue will hit the $1 billion mark.

So what's the future of dental and medical insurance? McKeel says prevention is the key. If people take care of themselves, they'll be healthier and have fewer claims.

'The easiest money I make is doing an exam on somebody who doesn't need it,' McKeel says. 'I can work for one hour and make $40, or I can work for four hours doing dental implants and make $40. Which do you think I'd rather do?'

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