Richard Eugene Workman

Class of 2024

  • Founder and Executive Chairman Heartland Dental

You have to open the door when opportunity knocks.

Rick Workman was born in 1955 in Clay County, Illinois, where his father was a farmer and his mother was a teacher. “We were in a very small, rural community,” he says. “We had a large extended family in our county. My grandparents lived across the road from us and I had 31 aunts and uncles living nearby. Everybody knew everybody. In the summer, my older sister and I traded off each week living with our grandparents while my mother completed her teaching degree. It was such a blessing to be so close with them and to have their influence.”

Workman was raised with a strong sense of community. “Farmers help each other,” he says. “If it’s bringing in their harvest or baling hay or loaning a tractor—whatever the need, they do their best to help. If someone was sick, you took them soup. It was on our farm that I learned about the importance of family, community, resilience, and hard work.”

At the age of four, Workman got his first farm job collecting eggs from the chicken coop. He later graduated to feeding hogs and by the time he was 10, he was driving a tractor and putting in 12-hours days. “You get a lot of time to think when you’re on a tractor,” he says, “and I spent a lot of time thinking I did not want to be a farmer.”

Workman was greatly influenced by his mother’s positive attitude. “I was 26 before I realized all mothers tell their children they are smart and special and can be whatever they choose. Dad and mom taught me to be kind and respectful. I was also taught to give my all—to do my best. These are strong American values that were imbedded with me and I’m very appreciative of where I came from.”

As his first and second grade teacher, his mother suggested that his handwriting was so bad he should be a doctor. “That idea sort of appealed to me,” he says, “but I had no real goal for the future. I just knew I wanted some sort of a profession. My mother encouraged education and I agreed with her. My grandfather, also a teacher, taught me in the seventh and eighth grades. He also encouraged education.

Workman attended Southern Illinois University (SIU) where he majored in biological science. On a trip after his freshman year of college, he met a couple who were both dentists. Taken with their enthusiasm for their profession, he ultimately decided that is what he would pursue. “For me, college was a stressful, uncertain time. I didn’t have a lot of confidence and I worried I wouldn’t do well enough to get into dental school.”

Workman returned home every weekend to work on the farm. At school, he lived in a trailer and subsisted mostly on homemade sandwiches.

In the end, Workman did well in his studies. After graduating in 1977, he earned his Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree from SIU’s dental school. Ultimately, he was surprised at his dental school training, which he says often had a militaristic vibe to it. “Questions were not encouraged and if you bravely ventured one, you risked being ridiculed. We were even taught how to silently scold an assistant if they made a mistake. I always thought there was a better way to not only teach good dental skills but also how to be a better leader and build a successful team in the office.”

In 1980, Workman started a private dental practice in Effingham, Illinois, about 40 minutes from the family farm. “I found a basement location, borrowed $35,000 from my parents and grandparents, and set up a two-chair office. My advertising was a $15 hand-painted sign that I put on the front of the building. My goal was to make $25,000 in my first year.”

There were six other dentists in town and Workman was determined he would measure up to or exceed his peers by working harder, smarter, and together with his team every day—all day. His confidence in his abilities grew as he got more experienced. Within six months, he was on pace to make $50,000 in his first year.

By 1981, Workman realized he was getting 25 patients a month from a small town 25 miles away. One of his new patients was a banker from that town who offered Workman a business loan with special terms if he would open a second office. “I took him up on his offer,” Workman says, “but having two offices was a lot more work. I was putting in 55 hours a week delivering patient care and an additional 30 hours on the business side of operations.”

In 1982, Workman opened a third office in a town in his home county that had no dentist. Eventually, he established the Workman Management Group which grew to 29 offices throughout central Illinois. He sold that group in 1997 and started his new group the next day. Today, his organization, known as Heartland Dental, provides dentists with a host of administrative and support services. It is the largest organization of its kind, including more than 1,825 affiliated dental practices in 39 states.

“I am passionate about dentistry and our organization,” Workman says. “I came to realize most dentists faced the same realities I faced, but often lacked similar experience levels or good business acumen. Dentists affiliated with Heartland have the opportunity to learn from one another and share best practices, making them better positioned to provide the best care and experiences for their patients. I believe that open and transparent sharing of knowledge is the largest benefit of being a part of a successful dental support organization.”

Beyond his work with Heartland Dental, Workman devotes himself to mentorship, leadership advice, and speaking engagements. Recently, Angie and Rick Workman gifted $32 million to High Point University in High Point, North Carolina, which will result in the Workman School of Dental Medicine, the state’s only private dental school.

“While students have to learn the sciences and they have to learn the technical skills, the learning of leadership and interpersonal communication, how to lead a team, how to interact with patients, and how to be a valued member of your community is also important and will be a part of the dental program,” he explains.

“I am blessed that my career gave me an opportunity to make a difference,” Workman says. “I founded a company that pioneered an industry, that improved dental practices and made a positive difference for those who work in those practices as well as the communities they serve. For me, that’s the definition of success.”

Workman has a philosophy of life that is deeply rooted in his upbringing. “My wish is that we would all try to be more like a small town, where people are nice, where if someone needs help their neighbors give it, and where we do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. That’s America. Our small towns are America.”

As a popular speaker to college students, Workman often encourages them to be leaders. “Part of that is to try to build something that will last. Don’t cut corners. Show up for work and be present. Work hard and give all your effort to whatever task is in front of you. In America, if you do this, I don’t see how you can lose. Opportunities are all around us, but you have to open the door when opportunity knocks.”

Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Workman says, “It’s like being inducted into life’s Hall of Fame. I passionately believe in the Association’s principles and all it’s doing to promote the American dream. At this point in my life, I’m trying to do all I can to help others. I’m doing this through my business, through my philanthropy, and through mentorship. I look forward to working with the Association in any way I can to advance its mission.”