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Racing Toward the Victory Lane: Starkey President & CEO Brandon Sawalich Steers Company with Eye on a Legacy of Compassion

Brandon Sawalich on the unique stress of running the only American-owned global hearing aid company while watching his teenage son, William, rise in the ranks of NASCAR racing.
Sawalich Brandon William Arca Cup 2023

Starkey President and CEO Brandon Sawalich celebrates his son William's win of the 2023 ARCA Menards Series East championship following a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway. Earlier this year, William signed a multi-year agreement with Joe Gibbs Racing at the age of 16 and has since driven to multiple victories with his No. 18 Toyota Camry during his very first year.

When he was a teenager Brandon Sawalich dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Instead, he would become the President and CEO of Starkey, the only hearing aid company headquartered in North America.

Now, Sawalich is watching another teenager, his son, William, rocket around NASCAR tracks on a weekly basis chasing his own dream.

Whether it’s watching his son race or running a global company with over 5,000 employees serving over 100 countries, he knows something about stress. He handles it by studying history, following his beloved Chicago Cubs, and sometimes even binge-watching television series.

Since taking the helm at Starkey in 2018, Sawalich has had to cope with a pandemic, regulatory issues, and all the while introducing a string of innovative products that employ artificial intelligence (AI) and healthable sensors and technology. And yet, he shrugs off the pressure. In fact, he says his job is rewarding and enjoyable.

Among the recent rewards is the successful launch of Starkey’s new award-winning Genesis AI line of hearing aids. He has also served as chair of the Hearing Industries Association (HIA) and worked as a steadfast advocate for professionally led hearing healthcare.

Sawalich Genesis Launch

Brandon Sawalich unveils Starkey's latest technological creation, Genesis AI, a hearing aid that features speedy processing and powerful computational abilities.

For Sawalich, it all started with a summer job at Starkey when he was a teenager, and he never looked back.

He took the helm at Starkey in 2018 succeeding the legendary Bill Austin who founded the company in 1967. Sawalich now leads and builds upon Austin’s legacy of care, compassion, and innovation.

He spoke to HearingTracker at his office in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Sawalich Cook Austin At Starkey

The author flanked by Starkey Founder Bill Austin and Brandon Sawalich at Starkey headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn.

What drew you to a career in the hearing industry?

Sawalich: I've been around the industry my whole life as far back as I can remember. My grandmother opened her first hearing aid office in 1959. My mother had a Miracle-Ear franchise. When I was a teenager, I said there was no way I was going to get into this industry. Nope. I was going to be an astronaut!

I just got pulled in. I started at the age of 19 with a summer job at Starkey. I like to joke that I was Chief Executive Gopher. I was doing airport runs, taking customers to the Mall of America, doing dishes, or whatever was needed. Customers were coming in all the time and that's how I built the foundations of my relationships with hearing care professionals today.

And it’s a good thing. This is a people industry and there are a lot of great people in it; I’ve gotten to know many of them. Frankly, I was always impressed by them because at the core they shared that element of compassion. You have to care—I mean you really have to care—about the patient.

So when I talk about the type of people we hire at Starkey, they must have that caring attitude. I guess you could say, given my family history, it's basically in the blood.

What’s more stressful: steering a large global company or watching your teenage son behind the wheel of a race car as he works his way up the NASCAR ranks?

Sawalich: Good question. I've never been asked that before.

I trust William; I know his skill level and am comforted by the fact that he's in a car that’s safer than what we drive on the freeway. He's strapped in and surrounded by a steel roll cage. I also trust the Joe Gibbs racing team. But still, he's my son, he's just 16, and there are not very many 16-year-olds doing what he does.

Sawalich With William And Race Truck

Brandon and William Sawalich in front of the Joe Gibbs Racing/Starkey/SoundGear race hauler.

At the Dover speedway, there’s a straightaway that’s like a launching pad and he got up to 180-190 miles per hour. You want to protect him; I know that feeling well.

When I watch him out on the track, I like to be alone—and I pace or just walk around. I trust him but you always worry about what another driver might do. There are other cars out there besides him and you don't know what's going to happen. But he's very skilled, he's got terrific reactions and instincts, and he’s doing great.

With Starkey, there's always stress and problems to solve. But I look at it as a puzzle. Identify the problem and then figure out the solution. And with my job, there's always a lot more good happening than bad.

Brandon Sawalich And William Sawalich

Brandon and William share a light moment at the racetrack.

How do you like to relax and de-stress?

I'm a big history buff. I like reading world and American history because I can learn from it. I like to learn from the past. I want to understand the failures and successes of great leaders because everyone makes mistakes. You must learn from your mistakes.

I've also always been a big baseball fan. I was good friends with Stan Musial and Bob Feller. They would come to Starkey to be fitted with hearing aids. But being from Illinois, I am a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, so I had 40 years of misery until the World Series win in 2016. That was my peak baseball moment. If I have some downtime, I will head back home and go see them play.

But I don’t do much personal travel since I travel so much for business, as well as William’s races. I like to relax at home which is kind of my “fortress of solitude” and just enjoy whatever is happening around the house. And believe it or not, I have started binge-watching shows which I never expected I would do. I find it helps to release my mind from the day-to-day pressure.

Your mother Tani is married to Bill Austin and you have worked with him for some 35 years.  How has he influenced you?

Let me give you an example. Earlier this year I was looking to buy a bulldog and I visited a nearby dog breeder. She invited me into her house and I saw her mother over in the corner in a recliner just sitting there with the TV on. But I could see she wasn't engaged, and I could tell she had hearing loss—being in the industry so long you can just tell.

I said to the woman, “You know your mom has hearing loss,” and she replied that her mom had really been disconnected lately. I said we will help you out and brought them to Starkey to get her fitted. Afterward, I got a really, really, big hug and a big thank you.

Starkey Cares Washington Heights Ny

Brandon recently accompanied Bill Austin (center in white) and Tani Austin (second from right) and the Starkey Cares Team who traveled to Washington Heights, NY, to provide services for over 100 people in the community.

We try to help out whenever we can. I learned that from Bill. When he started his business in 1961, he didn’t sell his first hearing aid; he gave it away. The client needed a hearing aid but didn’t have the money to pay for it, so Bill gave it to him.    

That compassion and drive, I think, is a big part of the legacy and culture that now I'm responsible for. That's who we are. You have to lead with the heart.

It's not a stretch at all to say that Bill set out to change the world. He is fond of the saying, “Be better today than yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today,” and that goes for the company too.

We have so many opportunities to improve people's lives through our technology and the quality care of the professionals we serve. I've said it before and I'll say it again: with the technology we're developing, we're at the beginning of the most exciting era in the history of our industry. I think our team is doing an incredible job of fulfilling Bill Austin's vision of breaking down communication barriers and making life safer, easier, and better for anyone who wants a more active healthier lifestyle—and, really, that's everyone.

Digby Cook


Digby Cook is a veteran journalist with a wide range of experience in television news, documentaries and newspapers. His interest in the science of hearing is both professional and personal.