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Unitron Hear Life - November 2023

Interview with Michael Tease, President & CEO, Unitron

Michael Tease

May 9, 2011

Topic: Meeting Customers' Needs
CAROLYN SMAKA: I'm speaking with Michael Tease, President & CEO, Unitron. Michael, thanks again for your time today.


SMAKA: Michael, can you tell me about your background prior to your current role at Unitron?

TEASE: I've been in the consumer products industry for 25 years, starting with Pfizer. In the course of my career, I have held various general management and sales positions in North America and Europe. What I have brought to the organizations I've worked at throughout my career is a focus on how we, as a company, can meet customer stress points.

My goal for the organizations I've led has been to operate from a contribution perspective to customers rather than from a consumption perspective. What I mean by that is, the chief objective in a sales call with a customer, for example, should be to contribute to the customer's business in whatever manner the customer feels the need for contribution or assistance. This is opposed to the consumption model where the chief objective is to close the sale. At the end of the day, we need to meet customers' needs.

I was a small business owner myself, having owned businesses in various industries in Alabama. I didn't operate those businesses because of my corporate career, but as an owner I learned about the needs of small businesses. Number one, they obviously need revenue because they need people coming in the door. Also, time is something that's very hard to come by, and there are other stress points as well. If we can address those needs and help them grow their business, loyalty to us becomes sort of a byproduct of how much we contribute to our customers' growth.

During my time with Pfizer, we purchased Warner-Lambert and Pharmacia, and then we were acquired by Johnson and Johnson. When we were acquired by Johnson and Johnson, I was asked to head up the integration effort for Johnson and Johnson Canada. I served as the vice president of the commercial selling organizations.. I focused the new selling structure for J&J Pfizer on contributing to customers in a way that was meaningful for them. Very quickly thereafter we were named the number one sales organization in Canada by our customers, and we were quite proud of that.

Later, I decided to leave Johnson and Johnson to become general manager of Schering Plough, Canada. In a span of two years, we took the company from performing below industry standards to leading the industry in growth. Part of that turnaround involved providing a superior element of customer service that I like to think of as legendary customer service.

SMAKA: What are your chief objectives for Unitron?

TEASE: I see my chief objective for Unitron as really three-fold. We want to become the supplier of choice, and in doing that provide a legendary customer service experience along with top-quality products. We want to be the investment of choice for Sonova. We know that Sonova has many companies they can invest in. We want them to know that when they invest in Unitron, they're going to get a superior return on investment. And we also want to be the employer of choice. To that end, the company culture that we have is critically important to retaining employees. In our industry, relationships are critically important, so I'm going about examining the culture that we have, and determine if that indeed is the culture that we want to have moving forward.

SMAKA: Company culture is not something I hear a lot of executives in our industry talking about.

TEASE: Yes, oftentimes leaders go into an organization and the soft side, culture, is not something that's important to them. But, the reality is that if the culture you have is not the culture you want, you need to rapidly set out to change that and to create a culture by design rather than a culture by accident. Engaged employees are critical to the performance of the business. I use the word "engaged" because you can have employees who are operating the business that aren't happy;they don't like the culture;they're not necessarily proud of being part of the company.

When you have engaged employees like I see here in Unitron - particularly in the U.S., and Canada -who love their work, love the company, and love its values, then you have real advocates for the business. For me, that's one of the most important things about our sales organization, which is really the forward leading element of our brand. Everything we say and do affects the brand of Unitron, and our brand is our business. We recognize that everything we do - from how we answer the phone, to how long a customer has to wait when they call, to how we provide service - affects our brand. Our goal is to continue to build the Unitron brand with engaged employees to ensure that when our customers think of us, they have confidence in what we stand for, they know our products will be great, and they know our customer service is going to be legendary. That's really what we're shooting for.

SMAKA: How do you measure company culture and how do you go about shaping that culture?

TEASE: Measuring company culture is really an artifact of the level of engagement that you have, and you have to find that out from your employees. Pulse surveys are one way to do that. In fact, our first survey went out this past week and we'll do regular pulse surveys to measure engagement. In addition to that, turnover is the key metric for determining how relevant our culture is and how close we're getting to becoming the employer of choice.

For me, those are things that management needs to stay very attuned to, and we need to make sure that that our culture is one that attracts the best and the brightest, but also challenges them intellectually so they feel they're growing professionally and personally along the route, and they feel rewarded for their efforts.

In my experience as a small business owner, I felt like there was really nothing more noble than to create a job for someone, to also create a product that customers loved, and to provide experiences to customers that made them want to come back to my brand so that could get that same experience over and over again. Over the course of my time in those businesses, we employed about 100 people, and I learned how important it is to communicate to people. Every single person was important in the business, whether it was a cashier or one of my bakers, or whether it was a server, or whether it was a line cook. Everybody represented the brand not only in their image, but also in how they talked to customers if there were issues, or if they were simply responding to a customer acknowledgement of a good experience.

I take that same sort of experience into my corporate life as well. Everyone is important. In fact, I would consider myself to be the least important person at Unitron because if I go on vacation, it may not affect the customers. But if one of our sales representatives goes on vacation for a few weeks, our customers know. You have to recognize the importance of every individual in the company, communicate that to them and give them the feedback when they achieve accomplishment. Their accomplishments not only affect themselves, but they contribute to the company overall and to our customers as well.

SMAKA: How did you come to the hearing industry?

TEASE: Well, what attracted me to the industry first and foremost was the opportunity to provide a product that made an incredible difference in people's lives. Now, even though I came from a pharmaceutical background, it was in the consumer product industry, so we made over-the-counter drugs that were relevant to people's lives in the sense that if you have an allergy, we had an allergy medication, or if you had an upset stomach, we had a remedy for that.

But those things really didn't dramatically change people's lives long term like hearing aids can. I know that there's nothing more difficult than celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas when someone feels alienated down at the end of the family table, and they're not participating, and they seem isolated from the family. It's difficult for the person with the hearing impairment, and it's difficult for family members who try and draw them into the conversation.

But when you see once someone fitted with hearing aids, all of a sudden they reconnect with others because now they can communicate fully again. As a profession, that's extremely gratifying.

SMAKA: What do you see are the opportunities and challenges specific to our industry?

TEASE: I think that the main challenge is also the opportunity, and that is, how to reach people who need hearing aids but are not wearing them. How do you de-stigmatize hearing aids in the mind of someone who's having hearing difficulty but is unwilling to take that first step in the journey to augment their hearing? You and I are both wearing eyeglasses now, and we don't mind wearing them. We are handicapped, we don't see well without them, but we may have several pairs in different styles.

There are great new form factors, but the reality is there's still a great stigma around wearing hearing aids, and a huge untapped market out there. The challenge is how do you do that in a way that you can actually make a profitable return on investment, and I think that's what everyone is struggling with.

Coming from a consumer products background, we spend a lot of money as marketers de-stigmatizing things and, in many cases, creating a need for something where there really is no need. With hearing aids, there is a definite need. When you have that kind of talent in marketing, think about how it can be applied when there is actually a need?

I think that's the real key.

SMAKA: I'm sure you've heard the saying by now that a hearing loss is more obvious than a hearing aid.

TEASE: Yes, that's very true. As you know, hearing loss affects the whole family. For the family, hearing loss is very frustrating. It affects communication and relationships, and even makes simple everyday family experiences like watching television less enjoyable. I have a family member with hearing loss who has been reluctant to be fit with hearing aids. We're going to fit her with some of the new form factors in the coming weeks. It's exciting for me to be part of the journey first hand and to better understand the psychology behind why people are reluctant to get fit with hearing aids.

I grew up in Florence, Alabama, right across the river from Helen Keller's home in Tuscumbia. Growing up as a child in that area of the state, you learn about a lot about hearing loss. I read Helen Keller's memoir, and it was an incredible for me to learn how important her hearing was to her, relative to her sight. Here is someone who is profoundly isolated from the world, and if she could have had anything, it would have been her hearing. I'm proud to be in this industry. I'm looking forward to learning how we can best address our customers' issues, how to assist them in building their businesses, and how we can support them in connecting those who have hearing loss back to their world.

SMAKA: Thanks, Michael, it's been great meeting you.

TEASE: Thanks, Carolyn, it's been a pleasure.

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Michael Tease

President & CEO, Unitron

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