William Austin opened his first hearing-aid repair shop in 1967 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, laying the first brick in what today is one of the world's largest hearing aids companies, Starkey Hearing Technologies. The private company sells 900,000 hearing aids a year, and its customers have reportedly included five U.S. presidents, two popes and singer Dolly Parton. Austin, the company's sole shareholder, no longer runs the company. Instead he focuses on the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which receives a cut of every product Starkey Hearing Technologies sells. To date the foundation has donated 1 million hearing aids around the world to people who can't afford them.
Born in 1942 in Nixa, Missouri, a 370-person speck on the map in the Ozarks, Austin dreamed of becoming the next Albert Schweitzer, the pastor turned missionary doctor who won a Nobel Peace Prize. In 1961 he went to the University of Minnesota, after just a month in college, he dropped out and put all his energy into hearing aids.
He started a hearing-aid shop, and by 1970 Austin was able to buy, for $13,000—about $86,000 today—a tiny ear-mold lab, which made the plastic parts of hearing aids. It was called Starkey Labs. The business thrived thanks to Austin’s innovations. The White House revealed to the public in 1983 that President Ronald Reagan wore Starkey hearing aids.
By 1992 Starkey’s sales had reached nearly $200 million. But an ugly split that year from his third wife, Cynthia Dawson spawned an even uglier lawsuit. Dawson alleged that Austin had promised to share future Starkey profits with her but had reneged after he met his current wife, Tani. The jury ruled in Dawson’s favor in 1998, awarding her $62 million. At least one lender showed Starkey the door. Austin needed a quick bailout, so he called on his billionaire friend, the late Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, for a loan.