When powerful enough, one piece of guidance can shape someone’s future. This is exactly what happened for Brandon Sawalich when Bill Austin, founder of Starkey, said, “It starts with caring, and people are the bottom line.”
These words shaped the course of Sawalich’s career and have guided him for the past 28 years at Starkey. Now, as the company’s President and CEO, Sawalich leads Starkey around the purpose of caring.
We, at Insights Success, caught up with Sawalich to learn more about his journey and how he is leading a team that is challenging the status quo when it comes to the technology, design and production of hearing aids.
Below are the highlights of the interview:
Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at Starkey. What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?
I started working at Starkey when I was 19 years old; I cleaned hearing aids that needed to be repaired. When I started, Founder Bill Austin told me, “It starts with caring, and people are the bottom line.” Mr. Austin established Starkey in 1967 and remains the company’s heart and soul. I took his words to heart, and they have guided me the past 28 years. I have worked in nearly every corner of Starkey, soaking up knowledge and always putting people first. I learned everything I could about this business, from the needs of the hearing impaired to customer service to the logistics of manufacturing.
When I started at Starkey in 1994, I never imagined a kid from a small coal mining town in Southern Illinois would one day lead a global company of 5,000 talented and caring people. However, Mr. Austin taught me that a title does not define a leader. A servant leader remembers that they work for their team, not the other way around. Starkey has reinvented the hearing aid to help the world hear better and live better. It’s my responsibility to lead our team with a clear vision and purpose.
Tell us about Starkey’s mission and vision.
Starkey’s mission is to serve our customers better than anyone else. This starts with a caring attitude, a people-first culture and excellent products. Hearing professionals trust our technology to deliver the best outcomes for their patients. Our latest hearing aid, Evolv AI, is part of the most advanced product line on the market. Patients no longer have to compromise on features to get the best hearing aid for their hearing loss, and providers can focus on delivering personalized care.
Starkey’s vision is to lead the world in hearing health and wellness for patient-driven care. The patient comes first, and the digital patient demands more than ever before. Our team works with patients to learn what they need and want. We then deliver cutting-edge technology with effortless usability.
How have you made an impact in the hearing industry?
What is best for the patient is best for our customers and is best for Starkey. Putting the patient first also means advocating for them. I’ve spent a decade working with politicians around the country to educate them on hearing loss and our industry. Policymakers must understand the role of the hearing professional and of technology so patient needs are represented. This continued education is critical to getting more people the hearing help they need.
Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you advancing hearing aid technology?
Our first priority is sound quality, but a hearing aid can do more than amplify sound. In 2018, Starkey revolutionized the hearing aid with Livio AI, the world’s first hearing aid with artificial intelligence and integrated sensors. We transformed the hearing aid into a Healthable™ device with unparalleled sound quality and groundbreaking features like activity tracking, engagement tracking, fall detection and alerts and real-time language translation. Livio AI was named one of TIME’s Best Inventions.
In 2021, we raised the bar again with Evolv AI which scans its environment 55 million times every hour, adjusting to the user’s listening environment automatically. In 2023, we plan to push hearing aid technology to places never before thought possible.
How has Starkey impacted the global hearing industry and what change would you still like to bring to the global market?
At Starkey, we prioritize patient needs and satisfaction. Hearing health care is essential, and the more people understand the importance of hearing and how hearing is connected to overall health and quality of life, the more likely they are to address their hearing loss. Starkey’s continued education on hearing loss, hearing technology and hearing health policy is unmatched in the industry. We are also working to reduce the stigma around hearing aids. People used to see hearing aids as a sign of age. Now, more people see this technology as a way to improve quality of life.
What, according to you, could be the next big change in the hearing industry? How is Starkey preparing to be a part of that change?
The next big change in the industry will be driven by the digital patient. Today’s hearing aid wearers are tech savvy and will continue to expect more advanced technology. The digital patient wants innovation in hearing aids and in the way they receive care. From virtual appointments to phone apps allowing them to manage their own settings, today’s user demands flexibility of care and a more personalized approach. The industry will have to continue to adapt to a world, and a patient, whose needs are advancing as quickly as the technology.
Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run, and what are your future goals for Starkey?
My goal for Starkey has never been to be the biggest. My goal is to be the best. We strive to always have the best product performance and quality and to give the patient the best user experience. Caring is the cornerstone of our culture, and it starts with our people – the best and brightest minds who choose to work here because our work is connected to a greater purpose of helping people. That foundation of caring is felt by our customers and passed along to their patients. If we continue driving innovation beyond what was thought possible and lead with caring, I don’t just envision us being the best, I know we will be.
What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs who aspire to venture into the health care sector?
Focus on helping people. If you have a great product and put people over profit, the rest will fall into place. When you make mistakes and fail (and you will), fail fast, learn, adjust and keep moving forward. It isn’t about being the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with people smarter than you who can work together. Most importantly, the next generation of successful entrepreneurs needs to lead with heart. It all starts with caring.