Henry Meltsner, who with his friend and business partner Harold Spar, started Hal-Hen and Widex USA, died January 12 at the age of 92. Not only did the navy buddies start and run two of the most enduring American companies in the hearing industry, they successfully turned them over to the next second generation, their sons, Ron Meltsner and Eric Spar, who led them into the 21st century.
After becoming friends in their sophomore year at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, NY, Henry and Hal served together in the navy during World War II. In 1946, Henry and Hal decided to take the $200 they had received when they left the navy to start a business, Hal-Hen Company, which they named after themselves.
Originally, Hal-Hen did not make hearing-related products. But, in its first year in business, the American Earphone Company contracted with it to design a cord connecting its body-worn hearing aid to the wearer’s ear. (This was years before ear-level hearing instruments had become standard.)
This business venture gave the partners the idea of calling on hearing aid dispensers themselves and selling cords directly to them. At the time, dispensers sold only one brand of hearing aid and they were not able to buy cords from other suppliers.
Heartened by this success, the young entrepreneurs looked for more unmet needs in the hearing field that they could fill. Among the innovative products they started selling were the Dri-Aid, a pouch filled with silica gel to prevent hearing aids from accumulating moisture, and necklaces designed for women hearing aid wearers to camouflage the hearing aid cords. Today, 68 years after its founding, Hal-Hen remains one of the largest distributor of hearing-related products and is still family-owned.
ENTERING THE HEARING AID BUSINESS
A decade after launching Hal-Hen, Meltsner and Spar decided it was time to go beyond hearing aid accessories. As Henry noted in a 2006 interview, the introduction of transistors in hearing aids meant there was no need anymore for hearing aid cords or for ways to hide them. “So,” he said, “we decided that we’d better get into the hearing aid business.”
They did so in collaboration with Christian Tøpholm and Erik Westermann, who had just founded Widex in Denmark. Meltsner and Spar created a separate company in 1956, Widex Hearing Aid Company (later Widex USA), to distribute Widex hearing aids in the United States.
In the 1950s, most dispensers were still exclusive dealers of one brand, so they were reluctant to start buying and dispensing hearing aids from an unproven new company, especially one from Europe.
However, through hard work and perseverance, the partners began to penetrate the market. Key to their effort, Meltsner recalled, was “going back, going back, and going back until [dispensers] had confidence in you. They’d buy one and that’s how it all started. And then we developed friendships over our lifetime.”
The partners also visited universities, hospitals, and organizations for the hard of hearing, convincing them to carry their instruments to test patients and then to refer them to a dispenser for a Widex aid.
In the late 1960s, Henry Meltsner recognized the growing influence of audiology clinics and the role they would play in recommending hearing aids to patients. Therefore, he embarked on a new strategy of working with these clinics and their audiologists by placing clinical samples that could be tested on patients and then recommended to local hearing aid dispensers. This resulted in significant growth for Widex USA, which remained an independent company until 2010, when the founding families decided to sell it to Widex A/S, which is still owned by the Tøpholm and Westermann families.
In his later years, after his son, Ron, had taken over the presidency of Widex, Henry Meltsner devoted much of his time to donating hearing aids and accessories for poor children around the world.
He is survived by his wife, Rita; his son, Ron; his daughter, Sheryl; and his three grandchildren, Jason, Matthew, and Jennifer.