Getting rich wasn’t a priority when William Austin opened his first hearing-aid shop in 1967.
“I never had a burning desire to own a business or make a lot of money,” he said in a phone interview.
Austin did both. Since founding Starkey Hearing Technologies Inc. more than 40 years ago, the 72-year-old has turned the Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based company into the world’s fifth-largest hearing-aid manufacturer, according to Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. analyst Lisa Clive.
Starkey pioneered a number of hearing-aid developments, including the first in-canal devices and products that can be controlled by a smartphone. The company had $840 million in revenue in 2012, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, making Austin, the company’s chief executive officer and sole shareholder, a billionaire.
The company, which has factories in 26 countries, sold almost 900,000 hearing aids last year, according to Clive, about 8 percent of the global market. The World Health Organization says 360 million people have disabling hearing loss.
Born in 1942 and raised in Garibaldi, Oregon, Austin’s boyhood dream was to become a missionary doctor. He left home in 1961 to study medicine at the University of Minnesota, and paid for tuition by taking a part-time job making earpieces at his uncle’s hearing-aid shop.
Austin soon realized he could have a bigger effect on people’s lives by leveraging an entire business rather than working as a doctor in a single village. He dropped out of college and opened his own hearing-aid shop.
“I wanted to be part of a team,” he said. “Whether I owned it or not was totally irrelevant to me.”
Austin purchased a struggling ear-mold manufacturer named Starkey Laboratories Inc. for $13,000 in 1970 and merged it with his audiology shop. Over the next two decades, the company developed the first completely in-canal hearing aids and the first devices to use nanotechnology. Among its clients: five U.S. presidents and two popes, entertainers Steve Martin and Dolly Parton, and Dole Food Co. billionaire David Murdock.