Mass executive firings and subsequent turmoil have raised eyebrows and left Starkey Hearing Technologies in a vulnerable position, industry observers say.
Starkey’s highly competitive and mostly foreign competitors certainly see an opening to gain market share — and also a possible window for acquisition.
CEO Bill Austin has said in the past that the company is not for sale, but Lisa Clive, an analyst for Bernstein in Great Britain, said recent upheaval “increases chances that [Austin] would entertain discussions about a takeout — and all the hearing aid players would take a look at Starkey.”
Since September, Starkey has terminated longtime Starkey President Jerry Ruzicka and more than a half dozen other top managers. This month, federal agents executed search warrants on the homes of Ruzicka and one other former executive, though Ruzucka’s lawyer said he’s not aware of any specific allegations of wrongdoing.
The company, of which Austin owns 91 percent, has yet to announce executive replacements. Austin said in statements that he cannot comment because of ongoing investigations, but added that it’s “business as usual” at Starkey.
That hasn’t stopped speculation about the company’s options. Starkey holds a strong competitive position, and Clive said a sale could fetch $1 billion to $1.5 billion.
For one, Starkey controls 17 percent of global hearing aid sales, with 65 percent of its business in the United States. More important, Starkey is the only major player headquartered in the United States.
The $4.6 billion hearing aid industry is competitive and growing. It is expected to reach $5.4 billion in five years.
Starkey’s biggest rival is perhaps the Swiss giant Sonova Holding AG, which stands to win the most by gobbling up a big competitor. Both companies supply the U.S. Veterans Affairs operations, which could raise antitrust concerns, said Clive and others.
Another possible suitor is Samsung, an electronics conglomerate looking to enter the hearing aid business. “A bid for Starkey, while too small to move the overall needle in the Korean conglomerate’s overall financials would be one way to gain instant scale,” Clive said.
The well respected but recently purchased Siemens Audiology Solutions could also come sniffing, as well as three Denmark-based rivals: William Demant Holding, GN ReSound and the family owned Widex.
“So there would be lots of interest,” said Rajat Saxena, medical device analyst for California-based Grand View Research. He also said private equity and investment banking firms cannot be ruled out as suitors because of Starkey’s huge client base and product portfolio.
Saxena believes Starkey is “a very soft target for acquisition.”
“Because of so much happening, I believe Starkey is in trouble,” he said. “They may not really wish to go ahead and sell their business, but they have had no top management for more than two months now. And there are lawsuits and investigations happening, so things may change very soon. It is a very aggressive global market at the moment.”
Piper Jaffray Medical Technologies analyst Thomas Gunderson said buying Starkey would give overseas competitors more than market share.
“If you are from outside the United States and are used to socialized medicine — different barriers but not the [Food and Drug Administration] — figuring out what you have to do to do business in the United States is difficult,” Gunderson said. “So what you could do is buy your way in, leap forward and leverage their knowledge base on regulations, [medical] reimbursements and R&D.”
Austin, the 73-year-old CEO of the private Eden Prairie based firm, declined to be interviewed for this article. The company also has been largely quiet about the turmoil surrounding it for the past two months.
Indiana audiologist Sheryl Boatz is writing a book about the industry and wonders how Starkey and Austin will emerge from the “very interesting drama. … People have very strong opinions about Bill Austin.”
Austin previously looked to Ruzicka, a 38-year employee, to run the hearing aid business with annual sales of $800 million while Austin mainly concentrated on his charity foundation. With Ruzicka out, Austin may be “trying to orchestrate a succession plan for his family business,” Boatz said.
The drama started on Sept. 8, when Ruzicka was fired and escorted from the company’s headquarters. Within the week, the company also fired Chief Financial Officer Scott Nelson; operations vice president Keith Guggenberger; human resources Senior Vice President Larry Miller; and executive assistants Julie Miller and Kim Mohlis. Days later, Starkey fired Susan Good, director of the company’s medical partner network and Jeff Longtain, president of Starkey’s Oregon-based Northland Hearing Centers.
Employees said at least two additional high level managers were terminated this month.
Last month, Guggenberger sued Starkey for wrongful termination, breach of contract and defamation of character. He seeks $10.9 million in damages and lost wages after his 13 year employment contract was abruptly severed.
Guggenheimer’s suit claims the reason for the firings stemmed from Ruzicka’s refusal to promote Brandon Sawalich, Austin’s stepson and the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Lawyers for three other executives, including Ruzicka, said more lawsuits are coming.
Meanwhile, the FBI and the IRS on Nov. 4 executed search warrants on the homes of Ruzicka and Nelson and questioned several of those fired.
It’s unclear what prompted the raids. Ruzicka’s criminal attorney, John Conard, said he believes federal agents are looking for evidence of fraud. Conard said Ruzicka had reached out to the U.S. attorney’s office shortly after his firings to dispel misconceptions that he said were spread by Austin. He declined to elaborate.
“We have plans to be in further communications with the U.S. attorney and frankly we are happy that the FBI is digging into the facts of this matter,” Conard said.
FBI officials declined to comment.