Who’s Really in Charge?

Some years ago a good friend, Joel Mynders from Philadelphia, told me a story which I am going to paraphrase – badly.  He told me that he was at a dinner in Europe and happened to get seated next to the President of Siemens.  In the course of their conversations Joel mentioned that he was a Siemens customer.  ” Oh?” responded the President.  “What do you buy from us?”  “I fit hearing aids,” answered Joel.  The Siemens President thought about that for a moment, before saying, “Yes – hearing aids, that division comes under the heading ‘other’ in our P&L.”

For all I know, given the size of the Siemens Corporation, hearing aids may still be lumped in with an untold number of business divisions in the “Other” category in Siemens P&L even though they are selling more instruments than ever and are the largest hearing aid company in the world.  In most industries the fact that more products are being sold (a larger pie) would equate with more companies seeing an opportunity to make some money and getting into the business.  A larger pie must mean that even a small slice could be profitable – but not in the hearing aid industry where only a few reserved seats are available at the pie table.  Everyone else must stand around and wait to see what crumbs are left once the big eaters have had their fill.

Now let’s skip to the retail side of the business and we find the same type of scenario.  A number of the large retail organizations are doing well, even better than before, while many independent offices are struggling to keep their heads above water.  This is capitalism – survival of the fittest.  There is a silver lining in this scenario for many independent office owners and their employees; the better the big guys do the more employees they need.  With the economy what it is, many small office owners and their employees are finding positions with Costco and other large chains that they might not have considered a few years ago.

I am told that Costco is very close to having a dispensing facility in every store before the end of the year.  Even three years ago, I thought that such a goal was many years away from becoming a reality given the lack of professionals willing to work in the corporate environment.  This is not to say that Costco, et. al. is a bad place to work… just different.  It is reliably reported that Costco is the third largest purveyor of hearing aids in the country, and the AHAA group is likely in second place.  The VA is, of course, first.

I don’t know how many hearing aid manufacturers (truly independent of a big brother or sister) are doing business in this country today, but I feel I am on solid ground when I say that there are not enough.  We need competition… lots of competition.  Without competition the water in the well of innovation starts to stagnate and grow algae.  This same type of metaphor might also be applied to the retail end of our industry.  Hopefully, a resurgent economy (someday) will remedy that situation.  The hearing impaired should be offered the widest possible selection of instrumentation and dispensing models.  One size does not fit everyone.

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