Bill Austin: The Man on a Mission

Bill Austin is here now. Soon he’ll be back in the clouds: aboard his private jet, headed to another country, ready to aid another person who may need his attention and service and expertise. 

“I’m just here reloading my plane,” says the billionaire founder of Starkey Hearing Technologies, grinning broadly.

It’s a swampy afternoon in July, and the 77-year-old founder of the largest hearing aid manufacturer in the U.S. is sitting in the Eden Prairie headquarters of his company. He’s been gone almost the entire month of June—Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania—on “missions” with the Minneapolis-based Starkey Hearing Foundation. Through this nonprofit, Austin gives hearing aids to some of the world’s neediest people, in 64 countries across the globe. By Austin’s account, it’s his life’s work: assisting the roughly 466 million people worldwide—and a third of people over age 65—who battle profound hearing loss.

Technically, he’s in town for the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s Summer Sounds Benefit, a revamped and pared-down version of the foundation’s annual star-studded So the World May Hear gala. For 18 years, the gala stood uncontested as the Twin Cities’ splashiest fundraiser. Some of the decorated attendees to drop by the Saint Paul RiverCentre in recent years have included Ben Affleck, Ashton Kutcher, former president Bill Clinton, former president George W. Bush, Elton John, Steven Tyler, Johnny Depp, Billy Crystal, Miley Cyrus, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Garner, Alice Cooper, Sammy Hagar, and Evander Holyfield. Many of these celebs have joined Austin on missions. 

Not coincidentally, all have also received sizeable donations to their chosen charities prior to attending the Starkey gala. President Clinton’s Global Initiative? It got $3.1 million from the Starkey foundation between 2010 and 2016. The Global Health Corps, a foundation started by the daughters of former president George W. Bush? Starkey wrote them a check for $150,000 in 2017—a year when the former president didn’t even attend the gala. John, Affleck, and Whitaker? Each of their respective charities has seen an influx of cash from the Starkey Hearing Foundation.

Austin will tell you that cozying up to a who’s who of A-list stars hardly interests him. The gala this year won’t be needing their services. This year’s attendees? We’ll have to wait and see. 

Austin is also here in Eden Prairie this afternoon because his monumentally successful business—with estimated revenues of $850 million—could use his positive message of hope, service, and charity. Last year’s headlines focused on a bitter lawsuit that ended with the company’s former president, Jerry Ruzicka, being sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzling $18.9 million from Starkey Hearing Technologies. Meanwhile, Austin’s foundation—the principal focus of nearly all his time and energy—recently received a four-star rating from the nonprofit monitor Charity Navigator, including a near-perfect rating for accountability and transparency.

After almost 50 years at the top of Starkey, Bill Austin would seem to be a known entity. Yet it’s not easy to suss out what his plan may be for the future of Starkey, the foundation, and himself. Is Austin a bona fide philanthropist, with unimpeachable intentions and an expansive legacy? A narcissist besotted by celebrity? Or perhaps, over the years, he has evolved into something harder to comprehend.

Austin’s only interest, he’ll tell you, involves the work he’s doing on behalf of his foundation. As he likes to say, helping the world hear is his higher purpose. A divine duty. 

“He refers to it as something God called him to do,” says Dale Thorstad, a 33-year Starkey employee, former VP of operations, and a longtime friend of Austin. 

Austin echoes that notion. “People don’t have time these days to think about what’s really important, what’s really lasting,” he says. “So they need a guide.” 

That would be him. “I’m the keeper of the faith,” Austin adds. “That’s my job. To remind people what simple values are really important.”

That type of leadership can seem unusual. Grant Smith, a former managing director of Starkey, says, “Oh, Bill—he’s just eccentric. He’s cut from a different cloth.” Nonetheless, Smith credits Austin alone for rescuing him from a wayward life.  

Others take pause at Austin’s bolder pronouncements. “I was in a car once when he told us he was God,” a former high-level executive recalled. “I had to shift over to the other side of the road to make sure we didn’t get hit by lightning.”  

A man with an estimated worth of $2.3 billion who wears sweatpants, drives a rusted-out 2002 Mercedes-Benz (which he bought used), and claims he hasn’t written a check for the company since August 1970, Austin more or less lives at his office when he’s back home in the Twin Cities. 

That’s business as usual, says Tani Austin, Bill Austin’s wife (his fourth) and the revitalizer of the foundation. “And I’m not fighting it or saying, ‘Why don’t you come home?’ Because he’s at home wherever he is.”

She says the only time Austin ever relaxes in any traditional sense of the word is when she forces him to repair to their compound in Dallas, Texas. Tani wishes she could get him to the beach, perhaps, for a few days.

“But that’s punishment for me,” Bill Austin says with a laugh. “It is real punishment. And I would really like to be nice to my wife. But that’s just a price greater than I want to pay.” Since 2017, the day-to-day running of the company has been passed to his stepson, Brandon Sawalich, who carries the title of president. On the rare occasions Austin is back in town, he can be found wandering the halls of his company. Or fitting hearing aids for random patients. Or admiring an impressive wall of photos featuring some of his most famous clients and “close friends”: Ronald Reagan, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Walter Cronkite, and a slew of Hall of Fame baseball players.  

Austin offers mixed messages about whether he belongs in such exalted and well-off company. He says he doesn’t need much. At least not material things. “Money happens. I don’t have to worry about” it, he says. “Honest to God. Supposedly Forbes says I’m one of the wealthiest people in the world. And I don’t know that’s true. But I don’t care.” 

Austin seems just as detached—checked out, even—from the fortunes of his beloved company: the one he transformed from Professional Hearing Aid Services, an ordinary hearing aid repair shop in the suburbs, into Starkey Hearing Technologies, an innovative, multinational hearing aid manufacturer and retailer. At least that’s the impression he likes to give off.

“I don’t go to bank meetings. I don’t go to finance meetings. I don’t go to budget meetings,” Austin says when asked of his current involvement in Starkey’s finances. “I figure they’re stupid.” 

That said, no one has ever accused Austin of being stupid. A former Starkey executive suggests there’s a strategy behind the boss’s claims. (He requested anonymity to avoid blowback in the industry.) “I’ve always believed he’s more present than he pretends to be,” the exec says. “Bill likes to be in a position of deniability.”

Whatever his intentions, Austin’s nonpresence has had tangible consequences on his company. The most notable would be last year’s trial and conviction of Ruzicka on charges of defrauding and embezzling from the company. In total, five  executives faced federal criminal charges, including wire, mail, and tax fraud and embezzlement. The most damning charges were leveled against Ruzicka. Testimony suggested that he’d recruited senior executives at Starkey to come work for a planned (and sham) spinoff company—while continuing to draw salaries at Starkey after their defection. Ruzicka was later convicted of stealing $15 million in company stock, then distributing the proceeds to himself, former CFO Scott Nelson, and Jeff Longtain, former president of a Starkey-affiliated company, Northland Hearing.

A slew of articles around the time of the case, notably in the Star Tribune and Forbes, classified Austin as an absentee owner, so busy traveling the globe he let his company descend into chaos. 

Today, Austin says of that damning coverage, “I wasn’t concerned at all. I just pretty much ignored it and kept doing the work we’re supposed to do on the foundation and waited for it to run its course.”

Austin hardly seems to have felt the betrayal by Ruzicka and other top executives he’d entrusted with leadership. “I feel sorry for them,” he says. “They gave up their life for money. It’s unfortunate. But they were the criminals.”

Ever since his childhood in small-town Missouri, Bill Austin has felt drawn to a bigger stage. “I don’t know why. I just had that feeling,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I belonged to a community, a town, a place.” 

In 1961, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, having heard about the first successful open-heart surgery there, performed a decade earlier. Austin aspired to be the next Albert Schweitzer, the pastor turned missionary doctor  and Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

Austin places these ambitions in the context of an origin story. It’s an epic family tale. The story goes back to the Civil War, where a five-year-old boy saw his family massacred by raiders. A Union lieutenant rescued the boy and shepherded him to a nearby mill, where he lived and worked for the next decade. The lieutenant remembered the boy at the end of the war, Austin says. “And he gave that boy the land he had earned for serving on the Union side.” 

That boy, according to family lore, was Austin’s great-grandfather. He passed a lesson along to Austin’s grandfather, who imparted to Austin “the value of respecting life and helping do what you can, when you can.” 

That family legend, from 150 years ago, helps explain Austin’s present-day charity. “That’s why I try to give people chances today,” he says. “Not because they’re going to know who I am. Not because they can thank me or repay me. But because they deserve a chance.”

That’s not Austin’s only parable. He also likes to recount the moment that launched his career in hearing aids. Austin has told this tale so many times he knows the beats by heart. 

As a twentysomething, he worked at his uncle’s Twin Cities hearing aid shop. One day, an old man came in. 

“It was a profound case,” Austin recalls. “Earmolds were feeding back horribly, as they did then. Magnetic mics and receivers wouldn’t seal like hearing aids today. There was no such thing as feedback cancellation.” 

In just a short time, Austin, a gifted technician, had the man hearing well again. “And when I looked at him,” Austin says, “I saw in his face what that meant to him for me to care about him and help him hear.” 

He rode the bus home to his apartment steps from Cedar Lake and realized he’d spend his life helping others hear. “I saw the future. I saw the teams. I knew where I should go and how to do it.” He smiles at the memory—or maybe at the opportunity to share it again. 

“I realized it wasn’t about me. It was about me and my hands”—the instruments of his gift. Austin, by numerous accounts, is so adept at fitting and adjusting hearing aids that world leaders have come to Eden Prairie for his service. 

As his wife puts it, “Bill is Picasso when it comes to hearing aids.” 

The first acts of Austin’s career remain perhaps the most dramatic. In the late 1960s, Austin started his small hearing aid repair shop, Professional Hearing Aid Services, an operation that in a matter of years became the largest in the country. In August 1970, Austin purchased Starkey for $13,000. The company at that point existed only as an earmold lab and repair outfit. 

Here, longtime employee Thorstad says, Austin grew his following. “People would still come and see Bill on the retail side, because they knew him from before,” Thorstad says. 

At the time, hearing aids boosted only the lower sounds—despite the fact that most hearing-loss patients needed high-frequency amplification. Recognizing and addressing this deficiency became Austin’s breakthrough. Starkey began to manufacture its own custom in-ear hearing aids. By 1976, Starkey had become one of the top 10 manufacturers in the country. 

“Nobody knew it,” Thorstad says. Competing manufacturers largely dismissed custom hearing aids as a fad. They stuck to behind-the-ear and eyeglass-affixed models. Austin saw the opening in the market and jumped. 

In the ’80s, Starkey became a dominant force in the global hearing aid industry, says Karl Strom, longtime editor of Hearing Review, a trade journal based in Duluth. “Bill has always had a knack for anticipating the needs of hearing-care professionals, and before they even could articulate it.” 

The company’s financial fortune opened a spigot of funding that Austin has poured into the Starkey Hearing Foundation. In 2017, the charity’s most recent available tax filing, the foundation received $27.5 million in revenues, nearly all of which came from contributions and grants. About $17 million of that represents noncash supplies: food and beverage, hearing aids, and hearing aid batteries—in large part, Austin’s largesse. 

Today, Austin describes the company’s journey as a natural outcropping of his first epiphany, 50-odd years ago in his apartment. 

“You’ll spend your life doing this,” he remembers saying aloud to himself. “And you’ll impact a village.”

What does Austin make of what went wrong at Starkey? Don’t bother asking. It’s not the usual CEO problem, where an embattled exec sits behind a wall of protective lawyers and ducks. 

Rather, Austin barely seems to care. Sitting at a conference table at Starkey headquarters, Austin audibly laughs and throws his hands up. The idea that he might be personally hurt by the betrayal? It’s not only entirely false but also a bit preposterous.  The lawsuits and prosecutions were a fleeting entanglement of the material world. And as Austin describes it, that’s no longer his domain.  

Strom, the trade-journal editor, has observed Austin for decades, and he has watched the evolution of Austin’s seemingly messianic leanings. 

“He’s a different kind of cat,” Strom says. “There are people who don’t like him, obviously. But he’s had a ton of success, so that probably comes part and parcel.”

Naturally, his inner circle feels otherwise. Austin’s lawyer, Scott Neilson, declares him to be “the most unique person you’ll ever meet.” 

And have you heard the one about former president Clinton declaring Austin the only person he’d take a bullet for? It’s something of a company legend that his devotees like to recount, but which no one can pinpoint to a time or place.

What seems unassailable, however, is Austin’s documented work with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. Nearly every year for the past decade, he has hit the road for three weeks out of every month, stopping in countries from Cambodia to Zambia to El Salvador. On the ground, he donates hearing aids to hearing-loss patients who cannot otherwise afford them. 

This past April, Ryan Stoltz, a 14-year-old from Eden Prairie, traveled with Austin and the foundation on a pair of missions to the Mexican border cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. There, the teenager watched firsthand as Austin supervised local staff and adjusted patients’ hearing aids.

“He was right in there with us,” Stoltz says. “And he would stand there hour after hour, checking each individual’s hearing aid to make sure it was the correct volume and the correct levels….He’s the first one there and one of the last ones out of the building.”

In the past 30 years, Starkey Hearing Foundation has provided more than 1 million hearing aids to people in need. In a given year, the charity may distribute more than 175,000 free hearing aids to patients in more than 100 countries. At home in the States, the foundation’s Hear Now program has provided thousands of hearing instruments to low-income Americans.

Richard S. Brown, the CEO of JNBA Financial Advisors, a Bloomington-based financial management firm, first met Austin at an awards ceremony nine years ago. He’s now the foundation’s president and board chair. 

“The minute I met Mr. Austin and realized he was for real, I knew he would have an incredible influence on how I turned out as a human being,” Brown recalls. “No doubt in my mind.” 

In fact, Austin’s charity inspired him so much that, the morning after their first meeting, Brown boarded a plane for the Dominican Republic to accompany Austin on a mission. 

Standing onstage in the same tuxedo he has apparently worn since the ’80s, Bill Austin looks out at the crowd at the Armory in Minneapolis and opens up about this year’s gala. His wife, Tani, contended they were spending too much money on the annual fundraiser. “This way we can spend more money on our programs,” he says.

When Tani launched the annual gala back in 2001, it was “a strategic decision” to impress the rich and famous, she says. Big-name clients like Walter Cronkite, Hugh Hefner, and Billy Graham were already flying into town to get their hearing devices fitted by her husband. Might as well get them to support the foundation, she thought. 

Tani invited eight high-profile guests that first year to what was then called the Great American Awards Gala. Seven accepted, including Broadway legend Carol Channing, Cardinals outfielder Stan Musial, and Cronkite. That year, 800 people showed up. 

The gala evolved to offer a spectacle of the highest order: a red carpet littered with waiting photographers, limos dropping off celebrity guests, and a massive media presence. For years, it stood out as perhaps the biggest draw on the Cities’ philanthropic calendar.

 This year’s edition feels deliberately modest. No red carpet. No limos. No media. Rather, in many ways it projects the mood of an above-average wedding. Or, say, the last night of a lucrative medical device conference. Businesspeople, politicians, and local donors mingle between dual open bars that flank each side of the arch-roofed venue. Guests snap selfies in front of a makeshift interior red carpet backdrop before they retire to the north end of the venue. There they encounter a surprisingly solid Sinbad monologue and a rather flaccid Sammy Hagar rock set.

Comedian Billy Crystal and NFL wide receiver (and hometown hero) Larry Fitzgerald appear tonight as the guests of honor. Naturally, both lavish praise on Austin. 

As Fitzgerald explains onstage during his honoree speech, he’s gone on 15 missions with Austin. One involved an overseas flight where he and Austin got to talking. “It was then I was able to see the light that radiates from Bill Austin,” Fitzgerald says. 

Over the years, Austin has learned to stomach the events. “That’s part of what you tolerate in life to be part of the example to others,” he says. 

Several former Starkey employees agree the galas and celebrity mingling reflect Tani’s plan for the charity.

“That’s not Bill,” says Ryan Anderson, a former Starkey contractor. “He’s not the guy who wants to stand up onstage with the light on him or anything like that. He’s just a no-nonsense guy with a vision and a passion.”  

That said, Austin appears to relish a captive audience. And especially one he can potentially inspire. 

One former Starkey executive remembers how Austin used to hold unbearably long Starkey team meetings. He’d go on speaking for hours. “And it was almost as if he was waiting until he said that one thing that people were going to leave with,” the exec says. 

So tonight Austin doesn’t hesitate to serve up his version of an inspirational speech that doubles as a guilt trip. His goal tonight, he says, is for the foundation to collectively raise enough money to provide universal hearing screening in all 64 countries it serves.

“People are naturally lazy, jealous; they have frailties, weaknesses, and selfishness,” Austin says. “We have a chance every day, just like the lieutenant”—his great-grandfather’s savior—“had to give someone a hand up, give them a smile, give them caring. Try to help them become all they can be. Or you can just mind your own business and walk away from it. The choice is yours.”

Anyone who invests so much of himself into a cause undoubtedly hopes others will embrace it. But Austin won’t change what he’s doing either way. 

Back in the office, he’d framed it this way: “When I help one person and I see the tears of joy and the excitement in their life and have them say, ‘You’ve given me life again,’ I’m giving them a chance to be self-detrimental” (or, as he no doubt meant, self-determining). Austin almost seemed to be suggesting that he grants people free will—like Adam and Eve in the garden. “When I do something, I know I’ve done something. It’s not just talk.”

After all, once the gala wraps, there are unfortunate people in Peru who need hearing aids. Give him a few hours, and Bill Austin will be heading there on his private jet, back to work, inspired and ready as ever to fulfill his mission. 

Comments are closed.