Media - Sonova News Room
The technology enthusiast
The new CEO of Phonak's parent company Sonova is hoping to blow the dust off hearing aids and turn them into 21st-century medical gadgets. New partnerships with tech giants like Apple may soon be in the offing. - Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag: Interview with Arnd Kaldowski
Arnd Kaldowski took up his post as CEO of Sonova in April, but hardly a head turns as the German national takes his seat at a long lunch table in the hearing aid manufacturer’s canteen; he moved into his office in Stäfa last autumn, and his predecessor Lukas Braunschweiler has been showing him the ropes.
Changes at the top of big companies are often associated with slamming doors, upheaval and the rumour mill working overtime, but not at Sonova. The two simply divided up the tasks and the new boy took over at the end. “He’s a fantastic person. Not only does he know his stuff, but he knows how to let go,” says Kaldowski of Braunschweiler.
The staggered handover was possible because the company is well-positioned; medical technology is one of the most profitable sectors and business has been growing continuously. 51-year-old Kaldowski has been using the time to get to know customers, investors, and colleagues. “As a newcomer, you should be cautious, first observing and then absorbing the company’s culture and processes,” he says. But he has a few ideas of his own, of course. Predictably for a physicist, Kaldowski is fascinated by technology – and he is hoping to nudge the innovative functions of Sonova’s audiological devices more towards universally applicable technology. Hearing aids aren’t just gadgets, however, nor should they be turned into toys – but maybe something similar: serious pieces of kit, but with a playful streak.
We’re making more and more technical breakthroughs that bring the customer real added value. As long as we can maintain this edge, we will remain successful.
Arnd Kaldowski, CEO of Sonova
The top models have long offered more than mere sound amplification; they can be hands-free units for your mobile or invisible mini headphones for your television, and Sonova has developed a wireless chip that can connect with voice-controlled apps such as Siri or Alexa, irrespective of brand or operating system. The chip is also Sonova’s entry ticket for consumer electronics and could form the basis for partnerships with tech giants like Apple. The new boss CEO would have nothing against such a move – while the emphasis has previously been on people with hearing loss, such partnerships would open up the potentially enormous customer base of “healthy people”.Combining screen, sound, and speech has already become a key part of life and is set to become increasingly important for people, Kaldowski continues. He is wary of jumping into consumer electronics with the company’s own brand, however. He says there are too may risks involved.
“We’re making more and more technical breakthroughs that bring the customer real added value. As long as we can maintain this edge, we will remain successful,” he says. He goes on to explain that the Sonova brand is associated with medical technology, not leisure, and this is reflected in such things as the design of their devices. “From outside, consumer electronics looks like a very simple business – but it isn’t,” he says.
Kaldowski was able to observe at close quarters just how tough the market is from his previous base in California, where he has spent the last few years with his wife and three children. During this period, he held a management role at Danaher, also a medical technology firm. Sonova would have the know-how to launch a line of high-end headphones, but the profit margins in such mass markets are a good deal lower and the competition fiercer, he explains. Developing hearing aids requires enormous expertise, however, and that means Sonova’s back is covered. “No one can copy our business over the short term,” says the manager.
The company works with independent dealers – generally chains of audiology stores that fit and sell hearing aids. Several appointments are required for a fitting, and this allows a relationship of trust with the audiologist to develop. Much like Sonova, most hearing instrument manufacturers have been building up their own chains over recent years with a view to reducing their dependence on audiology stores – and they make a little more money when they don’t have to pay the audiologists their cut, of course.
Kaldowski speaks of a balancing act: “The trick is to bring every sales channel into play,” he says, adding that if Sonova were to push its own stores too hard, it would encounter resistance from the independent audiologists – and cooperation with them remains essential. “There’s not much point in expanding our retail market share too aggressively; it would be expensive and difficult to defend.”
Digitalisation is opening up a third way to reach customers, who can already undergo hearing tests and fill out questionnaires online before their audiology appointment, thus shortening the time required to fit a device. If a problem arises, they can put a video call through to an audiologist who will adjust the device as they speak, allowing the customer to test whether it has worked. “It would never work without an audiologist,” says Kaldowski.
Kaldowski sees the acquisition of patients with mild hearing loss as an important challenge, as many of them refuse help with their hearing point blank. New apps and small, even invisible, devices would offer a chance to shake off the stigma of hearing aids.
His next big personal challenge will be to relocate to Switzerland. The family are moving into a house in the Canton of Zug in the summer and the kids will be attending the international school there. Kaldowski is not one of those managers who bangs on about how important his family is and then only sees the children on Sundays; he does a lot with them. In California, he would regularly go out with his three kids to catch some waves (with a little help from a surfing teacher).
The new Sonova CEO is under no illusions about his job, though: “The world is getting more and more complex. Customer segments are becoming more diverse, expectations are rising, and competition is stiffening,” he says, adding that only those who are quick on their feet will survive.