Decision Dialogues Episode 23 - Kelly McNally Passarelli

On Episode 23 of Decision Dialogues, Jennifer Faherty speaks with Dr. Kelly McNally Passarelli, dentist and owner of McNally Passarelli DDS. Kelly talks about how her passion for dentistry emerged at a young age after her experience with cleft lip and palate. She shares how she navigated the painful loss of her husband and, through resilience and a strong support system, learned to run the practice on her own.

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Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Jennifer Faherty, and I’m the Chief Client Experience Officer at Modera Wealth Management LLC. Today we’ll be chatting with Dr. Kelly McNally Passarelli. Kelly has been practicing dentistry for nearly three decades. Her dental practice has been in her family for over 60 years—wow! So welcome, Kelly. Thank you so much for being a guest today on our show.

Thanks for having me, Jennifer. Happy to be here.

Great, happy to have you. So I know you have a very compelling story to tell. And you know, I definitely want to get to that. But before we kind of get to the heart of it, just tell us a little bit first about what your background is and really how you first decided to become a dentist.

So I was born with a cleft lip and palate and was basically involved in the dental world early on because of my birth defect. I started with braces in first grade, and literally was in braces or retainers all through my education till I graduated from high school. Because of that, I had an interest. I wanted to help people the way that I had been helped. And I looked at different professions, and I considered speech pathology. I have an aunt who’s a speech pathologist and an uncle, her husband, and was very interested in that. I considered medicine but I wanted to be a surgeon. Being a mom was really an important part of what I saw, you know, my future to hold and no disrespect to women—things have evolved a lot. I graduated such a long time ago. But I just knew I wanted to be around more than I felt, you know, I could be as a surgeon. 

Dentistry just seemed to be a great field for a woman. And it allowed me to do both things that were important to me: help others and be there to personally raise my children. So that kind of drove me to dental school. I’m from Maryland originally. I went to Loyola undergrad and then to University of Maryland dental school. My husband was a couple years ahead of me in school. And basically we met and kind of the rest kind of fell into place.

Wow. I mean, that’s great. I mean, it’s such a personal way to enter a profession. And I would say also not just personal, but really thoughtful. It sounds like you really kind of took practical considerations, kind of almost had a vision for yourself in many respects.

I did. I mean, I felt very blessed to grow up in my family. And in a lot of ways—my mother’s a nurse. She was not working while I was young, went back to work when my youngest brother went to school, you know, so that was kind of—she was my role model or my mentor, and had, obviously, a profound impact on how I thought about my future and how I wanted to shape that.

It’s important to have those mentors, right?

Yeah, definitely. 

Is it what you thought it would be?

No, not at all. So you know, when you’re young you have idealistic images of how things will be and what’s involved and as thoughtful as I thought my approach was, you know, reality is often different. So I went to dental school, thinking I wanted to work as an orthodontist. You know, life happens, things happened in my life that kind of made me reconsider the extra amount of schooling and just I wasn’t as passionate about it when I was hands-on doing it. I’m a general dentist, and I love that because I can do a little bit of everything. I can pick and choose what I’m good at and focus on that, and I have great support professionally around me. So I like utilizing them. I thought, you know, my perfect vision early on was to be an orthodontist, and work in a cleft palate clinic. As an employee, I never wanted to have my own business. And you know, that’s just not how things worked out for a lot of reasons.

Yeah, and tell us a little bit about why that was.

So basically my husband, as I mentioned, was a couple years ahead of me in school. His dad was a dentist, he grew up in Ridgewood. And he actually never wanted to be a dentist. He has a degree, had a degree in mechanical engineering, and wanted to work in the auto industry. And just kind of had this epiphany one day that, you know what, I think being my own boss is really kind of what I need. So he took the prereqs and shifted his focus and went to dental school. Anyway, we met, we’re friends. Right before I graduated, we started dating. And I think only because we had that friendship foundation, qe were long distance the whole time that we were dating, I finished school. And we got married after I did a general practice residency. So I worked for a year in a hospital, which was a wonderful experience, gave me a lot of different training that I hadn’t had prior. And then we got married, and I joined the practice in 1992. So I’ve been here for a long time.

Yeah, and not expecting to be a business owner, right? 

Not at all, not at all. And, you know, we definitely had a division of labor. So Larry’s dad was working with us initially, then he retired, and he had really taught Larry how to run a business, you know, his approach was a little bit different. He was definitely a little bit more old school relative to managing staff. And, you know, he was kind of more “what the doctor says, goes” kind of mentality. Larry and I had a very different approach. And we tried to create, basically a family, a dental family. So our staff has been really very—thankfully, I’m grateful everyday—very consistent. 

And so as Larry utilized the skills that his dad taught him, and we, you know, we’re married and started to have a family, I basically was working part time and I was building up within the practice. We had looked at buying practices to get me busy. And, you know, the finances of that just didn’t seem to make sense to us, you know, people wanted a lot of money, and that’s fine. But what’s most important, a lot of times, in a dental practice is the relationship that the practitioner has with the patients. And when that goes, people who have been very loyal will then choose the time to shift and move on. So we just decided to hunker down and work on building me up within that practice. And it took time, but you know, I was happy being part-time. And I was blessed and fortunate that I was able to do that for so many years. You know, basically, you know, life is crazy, and my life took a huge turn. Sorry.

Take your time.

In 2015, my husband passed very suddenly. And, you know, I went from—I always equate it to being sort of an analogy for me, is being the passenger in the car of life. I kind of knew everything about the business and how to run it and run the house. But I didn’t know the street names, I knew roughly where to make the turn, but I didn’t know the actual details of everything. So, you know, it was definitely a huge transition to go from part time and being able to get to the gym and you know, have time to cook dinners and do everything that I had been doing to now basically focusing full force on making sure that the business succeeded and thrived, that everyone knew that I was in it for the long haul. That I wasn’t there just to basically make it through the first year, prove that I could do it, but actually show everyone that I had the skills and the desire and the drive to continue the legacy that my father-in-law and my husband had started. So that’s basically how I became a business owner whether I wanted to or not.

Well, first, you know, thank you for sharing that and there’s so much to unpack there. I don’t know you well, but for our listeners, I remember getting that letter from your practice about your husband, because he was actually more my dentist than you. Your story just resonated so much and I knew that it was important for people to understand what that was all about. Because I saw you kind of go through that. And now you have this very thriving practice after overcoming that very difficult time period. So, again, thank you for sharing that. And, you know, there’s again, so much to unpack there. So if we could go back to like, before you kind of built this business together and had a vision of what that would be, and kind of had your roles, right. No one can expect something like this at all right to happen. But was there ever a conversation about that? 

What would happen if?

Yeah, succession or anything like that.

You know, no. We really, we were trying to work hard and just put money away so that we could retire comfortably. And, you know, just, every job is different. And part of what made our life beautiful and difficult was we work together. And so what that meant was, we weren’t able to take big trips and travel, because when we weren’t there, the office couldn’t be open. So because it was only the two of us. And that was a conscious choice. You know, it was conscious, because there has to be a level of trust. And if you bring someone in they have to, you know, mesh with you, not just being able to provide the service, but also personally as well, philosophically, as well. And, you know, that’s a really hard thing to find. And I struggle with that now to be honest. That’s one of the many ways that I miss Larry, is, at this point in my life, I’m 56. You know, what’s next for me? And how do I get there? And how do I take care of my patients and my staff in that transition process? I don’t have the answers but it’s definitely on my mind. And I’ve looked at things and to be honest, if nothing sounds good, I think I’m just gonna work until I don’t. But it is, it’s a struggle. 

And, you know, we had sort of briefly talked about things, but it seemed far away. I mean, at that time, I literally, I turned 50, the day that he passed, and, you know, he had just turned 52. So, you know, although we were in our 50s, it still seemed way down the road. I had a 15-year-old. So you know, a freshman in high school, and our older son had just finished his freshman year in college. So although it sounded great, you know, and you sort of, kind of very lightly touched upon it, there was nothing that was definitive. And definitely, you know, the industry is changing so much, unfortunately, the profession. I love to call it just a profession. But unfortunately, you know, there’s an evolution in medicine and dentistry, and it isn’t, in my personal opinion, necessarily a good path that we’re headed down. So, and that’s part of my struggle, and I wish that he was here to bounce thoughts off.

You’re talking a little bit about moving away, I guess, from that intimate kind of family office and kind of bigger–

Right, that’s the push. Exactly, exactly. And, you know, they’re corporations who are basically trying to absorb practices. And it’s hard to compete with the big guys, as a little guy, you know, purchasing products and supplies and staffing and all the levels of doing what needs to be done. It can be daunting at times, especially then you throw COVID on top of it. I mean, it’s just been a whirlwind of having to assess and reevaluate and reassure patients and staff and myself that we’re keeping everything safe, and we’re doing everything that we can. So there’s a lot of day to day stuff that’s done and then you have this other—the more business side of it to consider as well, because unfortunately, as much as you want to just be there to provide health and wellness, it is a business. If I can’t afford to turn the lights on, I can’t help anyone.

Yeah, I mean, going back to you know, again, being a business owner, you don’t, I think sometimes you don’t think about—and maybe you do, I don’t want to make any assumptions—but when you become a dentist, you don’t think of becoming a business owner necessarily. That’s not the first thing that comes to mind and I come from a family of doctors and my mom had her own practice as a pediatrician. But she was essentially—she was a pediatrician but she was a business owner, just like you are a dentist and you’re a business owner. And so when Larry passed away, you know, we always—we work with many widows, and we tell them not to make too many decisions in the beginning of that first year, because there’s so much change. Was there a point where you asked yourself, Do I really want to keep running this business? Was that on the table at some point, or did you know you wanted to keep going?

I think—so not to dwell on it, but I think it actually kind of speaks to your point. Larry passed away on a Friday, overnight. And we had basically made arrangements—we had the wake on Monday, we had the funeral on Tuesday, my son’s birthday was on Wednesday, it was family day. And I was back in the office, getting everything organized, meeting with staff, starting to work on that letter, because I knew that just how Larry had lived his life that, you know, the business—that was my means to take care of my children and to provide for myself. And so the reality is, I didn’t have time to think or consider, I just had to do. I just shifted into go mode. And, you know, how could I manage this and make it work? And how could I mother my kids, and be there and support them when they have gone through their biggest loss? When now I’m not as accessible as I was to them for their whole lives leading up to that point. So it was just this constant action at that point.

Survival mode almost?

Yeah, definitely. Definitely, definitely survival mode. And it was a lot more complicated. As daunting as that sounds, it was much more involved than even that, but yeah, it was constant appointments and meeting with this one, meeting with lawyers. I mean, it was all consuming.

Did you have good support at that time? Tell us a little bit about how you—because you were having to make a lot of these decisions on your own, but I imagine you would have needed to reach out.

I had, I was very fortunate that we had good people around us leading up to everything, and long-lasting relationships. I mean, I think that that—I can’t stress, finding good people, and valuing them and treasuring them, because they’re the people that pull through for you when you have those long standing relationships. They intuitively know you and they know your plan. So that absolutely saved me. I had people pitching in, in lots of little ways. Professionally, I had a lot of dentists, specialists that we work with that really rallied and people like you who knew who I was, but weren’t really patients of mine, per se, were supported and encouraged if they were going through a process. Yes, she’s good. She can do it. I had Larry in my head, telling me, you know, you’re as good as me. You just haven’t done it as much.

So, you know, we had a great accountant who, you know—he literally came and Larry always did all the bookkeeping. He took that over, he had a bookkeeper. And I was like, you know, I can’t, I don’t have a me. Larry had me to do stuff. And he could take on more of those types of things like the bookkeeping, so I had to basically delegate and hire people that we didn’t have. I had to hire an IT guy. It was the right move for me because I had too many other balls in the air. So that definitely helped. 

I also—I’m blessed. I have an amazing family and an amazing group of friends behind me and my office staff. Honest to God, they are incredible and amazing. And they were my rocks. So they totally, they didn’t run away. They, you know, their futures were potentially in jeopardy as well. And instead of folding in, moving on, they all dug in their heels and really helped and supported me and made it work. So I’m very, very lucky.

That’s great. Yeah, having that kind of support, I think, is just—you don’t realize till you come up to these kinds of situations where how, just important that is, right? 


It takes that village. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

You know what? I don’t think so. Because I think that—I think I did what needed to be done. Like you said, it really was survival mode. And I don’t think that you can, you can’t second guess yourself. And things worked out well. So, you know, I think the first big decision, you know, everyone was telling me to cut my staff, to minimize my costs. And I had a part time assistant, Laurie, who had been with us, left to have kids, came back, had been back about six years when this all happened. And, you know, she would have been the one to let go, but she was priceless, like, she’s a treasure, and having her stay gave my office staff some flexibility. 

So that’s something that people couldn’t understand. People from the outside could tell me what sounded, from a numbers standpoint, to make sense. But it didn’t make sense when you looked at the big picture. And it didn’t make sense for me, and my dental family, you know—back to that whole thing, I need to take care of them. They’re taking care of me, I need to take care of them. And it’s been a blessing, because through it all, she’s now working full time with me. And you know, I literally, she’s amazing. So if I had listened to that advice, I would have lost her. So that—things work out.

That’s great. And you had that culture of the family. That was kind of what you built your vision of the whole business, really. And you knew enough to want to retain that. And also, yeah, I mean, again, for seeing the long term vision, it sounds like you knew that there’s other things besides short term costs involved. Like that might have helped you short term financially, possibly with the bottom line, but that maybe long term, what was more important is to have the people there, so you could retain the business.

Right. And I think that back to making choices for the long haul, you know, I chose, after that first year, I started making plans to renovate the office. And that, again, was, I wanted to demonstrate to the patients and my staff that this wasn’t just—I wasn’t a fly by night, I wasn’t just doing it to prove that I could. I was doing this, I wanted to invest in the future. And I wanted people to see me invest in the future, and the pride, and not for nothing, but also kind of making it my own, because although Larry and I were a team, it was the Passarelli name that was the most prominent. I was just kind of the sidekick. And now it was truly all mine. So not to disrespect. But, you know, the buck stopped with me when it never had before.

Yeah, I mean, it was really coming into your own. It’s an evolution of what you built together, but then now coming into making it your own. I don’t know that much about the dental industry or profession. What is it like being a female in the profession?

Well, I mean, I don’t think, I don’t even think of that, to be truly honest. My class, I graduated in ’91. So my dental school class at Maryland at that time was 50%. female. So, you know, to me, it really wasn’t an issue. Having said that, in private practice, you know, and in dealing with my father-in-law’s practice, when I initially started, that was aging. It became younger as Larry and I got to have more and more of a reputation of our own. But there were definitely patients of my father-in-law who felt that I couldn’t do what a guy could. I had a patient in dental school, who had asked to be assigned to someone different without meeting me. Just she heard that I was a female, and felt that I would be rough and horrible because I was a woman in a man’s world. And she wound up being one of my staunchest supporters. So I think it’s not that I haven’t experienced it to a slight degree. But it’s more, you know, it’s more people’s perception. Not like a daily thing.

Yeah. Not like a conscious thing that’s out, that you intentionally put out there in some respects.


So what do you think’s next for you?

Keeping the ball rolling. I’m just, you know, I’m happy. I get to do what I love every day. And honestly, the hard part is the business part, because you learn a lot about dentistry and everything in school and you learn nothing about business. So that you learn, kind of school of hard knocks and talking to people. And like I said, hopefully you have good people around you who can help guide you. But hopefully I just keep making some good choices and keeping those good people around and keep doing it.

Is there anything you would want to tell either a business owner or a new upcoming dentist, or even someone who might be going into partnership with their spouse, you know, in terms of a lesson learned or looking back and kind of leave? Because I know again, your story is so compelling on so many levels, and you’ve lived through it, right? You’ve got through, it wasn’t always planned. But somehow you found the resilience to work things out. 

Well, I think, really like to your—I’ll get to your point in two seconds. You know, I think my parents raised me to be a fighter. They never made excuses with my issue with my cleft. I was always expected to just do and achieve. And there were no, you know, you couldn’t make an excuse, you didn’t get an exception. So I’ve always been a fighter. And I think that that has served me well, because I’ve faced you know, obviously, the loss of Larry, but I was diagnosed with diabetes in dental school, I’ve had issues along the way, where I haven’t—you don’t get to just pick things and have life work out. You have to fight for what you want, and take good care of yourself, and to take good care of those you love. 

But the advice that I would suggest to anybody, whether they’re dentists or not, is you got to believe in yourself. And you have to be willing to fight for what you want, and work hard. I mean, life isn’t fair. And life isn’t easy. And if you think that it’s going to be, you’re going to be probably miserable. But, you know, there are always silver linings, even when things are bad and tough. And I think that that’s what keeps me going, you know. I look at my boys. And I know if Larry was here, they would not be the strong, independent—they would be strong and independent, but not to the degree that they are right now. Because they’ve had to do a lot on their own. And they’ve had to work with me, as opposed to us just taking care of them and providing for them. They’ve had to step up. And I’m proud of them for that. And I think when you’re in it, you just want to make life easy for your kids, and you want to make life easy for everyone around you. And sometimes I think it doesn’t have the result that we’re hoping. So that’s like a silver lining I see in my boys, as devastating of a loss that it has been. 

And I think dentistry and medicine are both challenging. They always have been. And I think that it’s going to continue to be hard. But if you’re doing it for the right reasons, I think you will find happiness and joy in what you do. It’s evolving, just like everything, and you have to kind of learn how to make it be the best that you can get out of the situation you’re in.

That’s great. So many lessons there. And I think we’ll end there. I do have one final question. But before we get to it, you know, again, I want to just thank you. There’s so many, I think, a lot of people will resonate with many of the things that you had shared with us today, again, on, as I said, on so many levels. So I really appreciate you sharing that with us. 

Sure, no problem.

So just kind of a fun question to end. What’s the last non-financial decision you had to make today?

What I was having for lunch. 

Oh, well, what did you decide?

I had a ham sandwich. 

Me too, actually, I had a cheese one today. So that’s something we have in common. Thanks very much for joining us for today’s conversation. We really do appreciate your time and perspective. And thank you all for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.


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About Dr. Kelly

Dr. Kelly McNally Passarelli is a dentist and owner of McNally Passarelli DDS, based in the Ridgewood area. Kelly’s passion for dentistry stems from her own early experiences with a cleft lip and palate. Knowing the importance of a new smile, she practices general dentistry with a focus on cosmetic and restorative procedures. 

Kelly has been a staff member at Valley Hospital and taught prosthodontics at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. She is also a member of the NJ Dental Association, and she was voted one of Bergen County’s Top Dentists in 2017 and 2018.

Kelly earned a Bachelor of Science in General Biology from Loyola College in Maryland and earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. She completed a general practice residency at the Medical Center of Delaware prior to joining her husband, the late Dr. Lawrence Passarelli, in his practice.



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