Bill Austin

Bill Austin

Ear to the Stars: The largest hearing aid manufacturer in the U.S., Bill Austin aims to improve hearing for all, from Hollywood stars to impoverished kids.

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Actor Paul Newman’s mangled hearing aid lies on a counter at Starkey Laboratories in Eden Prairie. Newman had it mounted in a gold frame, with an engraved plate explaining its fate: “Schnauzer versus Austin. Schnauzer won.” Then he mailed his work of art to his buddy in Minnesota, Bill Austin.

Austin glances at it and smiles. “Paul’s dog has chewed up his hearing aid before. This time I sent Paul three hearing aids, with a note: ‘Schnauzer versus Austin, Round 3. Austin advantage: 3 to 1.’”

William F. Austin is founder, CEO, and sole owner of Starkey Laboratories, the largest hearing aid manufacturer in the United States. With estimated 2003 revenues of $420 million, Starkey sells more than 1.1 million hearing aids a year, employs 3,700 people (1,500 in Minnesota), and has 43 locations throughout the world.

Austin and his wife, Tani, who between them have four kids, now spend around 40 percent of their time in Minnesota and the rest in Dallas, where she lived before they met. Wherever he is, though, Bill Austin is working—traveling to Starkey’s many locations and fitting people with hearing aids. And while he’s known all over, one place he’s become a recognized figure is Hollywood—and another is the White House. Austin has fit hearing aids for countless celebrities, as well as four U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush and his father.

His friends are many, but they’re not all rich and famous. Among the numerous thank-you notes and pictures lining the walls of his Eden Prairie office are those from children around the world who have been helped by his nonprofit Starkey Hearing Foundation. Started by Austin in 1973, the foundation conducts 150 “missions” per year anywhere there’s a particular need. Teams of volunteers pay their own way to locations all over the world—including Ecuador,

El Salvador, Mexico, Russia, Panama, Vietnam, Africa, and India—where they fit needy hearing-impaired children with hearing aids, free of charge. Since its first mission to Mexico, the foundation has given away approximately 100,000 hearing aids, and the number increases each week. “From the very beginning, I always said I would treat the hearing loss, not the pocketbook,” Austin says.

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