Loss of a critical sense such as hearing is a debilitating affliction, and it affects more and more people in our increasingly noisy urban environments. While age inevitably takes its toll; workplaces, entertainment venues and even earbuds can also bring on life-changing hearing problems.
In Australia, about one in six people suffer from hearing loss, although that number is expected to rise to about one in four by 2050. Yet only one in five who could benefit from hearing aids actually use one; in other words, about 3.6 million Australians grapple with the challenging effects of hearing loss.
Compounding that, employment rates for people with hearing loss are 20.5 per cent lower for men and about 16.5 per cent lower for women. However, there are new solutions constantly being developed for hearing loss sufferers.
Sonova Group is a global leader in hearing solutions and was founded in 1947 in Switzerland, with the Group now boasting a workforce of over 14,000 and providing a global reach through more than 100 countries.
The company is a leading provider of audio health solutions with brands such as Phonak, Unitron, AudioNova, Hansaton, and Advanced Bionics. Sonova’s Australian subsidiary was established in 1984 and now has more than 80 staff with audiology experts based in every state.
It operates manufacturing, sales, warehousing, production, marketing, customer care, an audiological support line and a repair laboratory. Managing Director Aaron Thompson first worked in audio health with Phonak for a little more than nine years before moving to Sonova Australia in January 2020, just before COVID-19 swept through the country.
“I’m proud to work in health care,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “I’m in a privileged position where I can contribute to helping hundreds of thousands of Australians with hearing loss. Personally, it’s important to me to work in an industry where helping people is the core business.”
Aaron’s timing in changing jobs with the onset of COVID-19 couldn’t really have been worse, but navigating the pandemic just weeks after he started and, as he points out, “coming out in a position of strength”, makes him proud of his colleagues’ efforts to overcome the challenge.
“Because we took quick action when the pandemic came to reduce our costs, lean in to the challenges ahead and offer innovative solutions to our customers really quickly, the team turned the situation around. I was really proud of them,” Aaron says.
About one billion people around the world cannot hear well and would benefit from the use of hearing aids and instruments.
“I called the pandemic, ‘accelerated learning’ because I think if you can navigate a business through the challenges of the past year, then you can do anything. The lessons from last year are really helping right now with the current challenges.”
In a highly competitive environment like audio health care, innovation is everything and new technology drives a relentless race to stay in front. While that creates pressure on the likes of Sonova, it is of enormous benefit to the many people who need help with their health.
“I’m a huge believer in innovation. Innovation drives health care. And improvements in technology are important in the way that they help people,” Aaron explains.
“But every touchpoint along that value chain in terms of hearing instruments, as well as the services we offer, are really important. That’s what ultimately drives growth. I have a key phrase, which is ‘frictionless transaction’. We can and must make it as easy as possible to work with us.”
I called the pandemic ‘accelerated learning’ because I think if you can navigate a business through the challenges of the past year, then you can do anything.
Hearing aids are moving at a pace in their capabilities and now bring so much more to people who use them. They’re no longer just for improving hearing but also for connecting people through numerous technology enablers.
“At the core, our hearing instruments are healthcare devices, but we add technology that interacts with other devices such as phones, laptops and TVs, which enhances the experience for the wearer. As a business goal, our continued growth through new solutions and new technology, and finding different ways to help people, is absolutely critical,” Aaron shares.
“It’s important that we’re able to provide the products and different solutions that people actually want. The success of Sonova recently in Australia was built particularly on Phonak Marvel – it was the first hearing instrument connected to Bluetooth; in other words, to 10 billion devices. It interacted with TVs, phones and laptops across different platforms, whether it’s iOS or Android, and it was the first one to do that. People really embraced that. So it became more than just a hearing aid – it actually blurred the lines a little in terms of our consumer electronics.”
Product innovation is just one contributor to Sonova’s growth, according to Aaron, because the company also relies on its valued partners. “We must expand our relationships with hearing care providers, and transition from a hearing instrument supplier to a true business partner. “Ultimately, we are aiming to accelerate innovation in hearing solutions at every touchpoint in the chain,” he asserts.
“We talk about changes in the market in regulatory or reimbursement environments as well as how we can progress clinical care, how we can help the independent practitioner and their profession succeed, and how we can adapt that mutual business model to succeed together.” He believes that those who benefit from Sonova’s products are the driving force behind its success.
“I speak to customers on a daily basis – it’s so important to listen to them. You can’t innovate without listening to your customers,” he points out. “We’re currently designing a raft of added-value solutions in marketing in order to help independent practitioners market their business and really stand out. With this new added-value partnership program, we are in constant dialogue with the people we’re working with to ensure we’re making incremental improvements to the experience.
“That helps us build a great service, but most importantly, it builds a service that our customers really want and need. It’s all very good innovating, but innovating without purpose or direction is just a waste of energy.”
For Aaron, being truly successful doesn’t just mean business growth. “We have a mission to have a positive effect on consumers’ lives and also run our business in a sustainable and responsible manner,” he insists.
“We regard our environmental social governance strategy an integral part of our overall strategy. It’s incredibly important that we work on the different elements that way, so as we continue to grow as an organisation, we are socially and environmentally responsible. That’s hugely important to me.”
No-one can accuse him of a lack of energy. In the short-term, Sonova has its latest technology products, Phonak Paradise and Unitron Blu, to promote and distribute around Australia. Both healthcare professionals and wearers have been impressed by their sound quality, and they have been well received around the country.
We have a mission to have a positive effect on consumers’ lives and also run our business in a sustainable and responsible manner.
Aaron is also pursuing greater cooperation with online businesses, which are playing a larger role in the industry, especially since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even more, he is working closely with independent healthcare practices to help them deliver increased value.
“It’s important for me to be able to talk to my children about where I work and what I do,” Aaron explains. “The whole purpose connected to my role is to work for an ethical, well-organised healthcare company that is genuinely helping people.”