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CEO Sees Charity as More Important Than Profit in Hearing Business

Bill Austin thought his last trip to Vietnam would be business as usual.

For Austin, the CEO of Starkey Laboratories, Inc. and the founder of the Starkey Hearing Foundation, that business—like similar business in Mexico, India, and Turkey—was fitting hearing aids free of charge to more than 200 people too poor to afford them. But that attitude vanished when one of Austin’s assistants interrupted a fitting to deliver some daunting news: through sheer word of mouth, the group of 287 scheduled people outside had now swelled to a crowd of over 500.

It was impossible to accommodate everyone, Austin’s staff told him. They would have to start sending people home.

Austin’s reply was instantaneous.

“I said, ‘we’re doing it,’” Austin recalled. “People said it was impossible, but I said, ‘we don’t turn people away.’”

Working through the night, Austin made good on his word: all 520 people left with the gift of hearing.

“I’m still amazed we were able to do it, and we didn’t compromise the help we gave them,” Austin, 65, said of the 2007 mission, one of several he does every year. “I want to do that all the time. It’s a new standard…it was a miracle.”

However, this miracle worker didn’t always aspire to be a hearing-aid tycoon, let alone a donor of more than 20,000 hearing aids annually. As a young man, Austin intended to be a doctor.

“I didn’t want to do research, I wanted to do missionary work, clinical work,” said Austin. “I wanted to help people directly and fix problems.”

To do this, Austin needed to finish school. In 1961 he went to the University of Minnesota to take enough credits to attend medical school, working part-time for a hearing-aid dealer—where he soon found his true calling.

“I had the opportunity to see people hearing again after having these profound losses and being shut away from life, all because of their hearing impairment,” Austin said. “I saw the value of the work, and you don’t have to experience losing people like surgeons can. I told myself, ‘There’s no morbidity here, and you really get to help people.’”

Soon thereafter, Austin dropped out of school and opened his own hearing-aid repair company. By 1971, Austin bought Starkey Laboratories, Inc., a small hearing-aid company. “From the very outset, if I had someone who needed hearing help, if I was working personally, if they couldn’t afford a hearing aid, I would try to help them out,” Austin said.

“I [told hearing-aid distributors] that if the person couldn’t afford the hearing aid, to write down ‘Starkey Fund.’” This focus on charity over profit soon became the company’s motto: “Hearing is our concern.”

But he soon had a realization: “I said, ‘Bill, what about the people who have less than nothing and can’t afford your hearing aids?’…so I said, ‘Hearing is our concern so that the world may hear,” which became the motto of the Starkey Fund, which became the Starkey Hearing Foundation in 1973.

Austin has been as successful in his business as well as his philanthropic ventures, fitting five presidents as well as celebrities like Paul Newman, Steve Martin, and Marlee Matlin.

Meanwhile, Starkey Laboratories has thrived, releasing in 2006 nFusion technology, which eliminates hearing-aid ringing and enables telephone use through nanotechnology.

Buoyed by this success, Austin has relentlessly built upon the Foundation, traveling across the country and to 150 nations worldwide to provide poverty-stricken communities with the chance to hear again. In 2005, Austin fitted Rebecca Lanier, one of America’s oldest people at age 115.

In his missions abroad, Austin has had similar success: he recalled one mission to Mexico, where a woman dying of kidney failure kept herself alive long enough to receive her hearing aid and finally thank her caretakers aloud.

In Guatemala, Austin met a deaf 13-year-old whose 8.5-foot frame left him wheelchair-bound. “We put hearing aids on him, and he could hear perfectly,” Austin said. “He was actually a genius; he was just trapped in this body, with these joints that he couldn’t move around with… It’s changed his life so much because now he will be able to communicate with people.”

“You see people that are isolated and alone, and they’re connected with life again,” continued Austin. “You are never too old for hearing—it’s what connects you to your life. Even if you are on your deathbed, you always want somebody to say ‘We love you, Dad,’ or ‘We love you, Mom.’ You never want to miss a part of your life.”