MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — He is a Minnesotan. He is a billionaire, and he says he does not know or care who writes his checks.
He is Bill Austin, owner of Starkey technologies. The only American hearing supplier is a major employer in the Twin Cities.
The company operates out of Eden Prairie, as does the foundation — which fits people around the world with free hearing aids.
The foundation’s star-studded fundraiser is Sunday, with Katy Perry headlining.
The lights, the camera, the photo ops – and Bill and Tani Austin are in the center of it all, famous by default.
“I never dreamed about having a big company and lots of money as being an important thing, I would have been happy to work in a place that had the bottom line that I had,” Bill said.
As we walked in to Starkey for our interview, we noticed Bill quietly fitting a patient.
“He never works a day in his life,” Tani said. “It’s his hobby.”
Growing up in Oregon, he came to Minnesota to become a missionary doctor. He picked up part-time work at a hearing aid shop. His first customer was an older man with a pesky aid. Bill figured it out the problem.
“When I saw the look in his eyes, it struck me of what that meant to him,” Bill said.
And with that, he decided to change course, buying a hearing aid shop in 1967.
Even though Bill oversees a company of 4,100 employees, there are some things he chooses not to see.
“I haven’t written a check since August 1970. I don’t know who writes my checks, I have no idea and I don’t care,” Bill said.
Despite the growth of Starkey’s technology side, it’s the charitable wing of the foundation that he works with full time, traveling 10 months a year. From South America to Africa, he insists on doing fittings himself.
“I can tell someone else to do that, I have hundreds of people to do that,” Bill said. “Why do I it? Because I can do it better, and I think my patients deserve the best if I’m here, I want to help them.”
It is a task that, as we witnessed, he can barely pull himself away from.
“If I want to talk to him, I sit in his chair (laughs)!” Tani said. “That’s the only way I can get him to listen!”
As Bill kept his eyes on the ear, he built quite the reputation.
“People come to me from all over the world to have hearing help,” Bill said. “I fit five U.S. presidents, Mother Teresa, two popes (laughs)!”
And he and the people writing the checks built an empire along the way. He is officially a billionaire who is working for another title.
“To me, a hero is someone who does something for someone that can’t repay them,” Bill said. “I’m determined I won’t let any pesky ear defeat me.”
The 2015 Starkey Gala is Sunday. This year’s honoree will be President George W. Bush.