HearUSA, a leading hearing aid retailer, has placed its Palm Beach Gardens headquarters at the center of its plan for massive growth.
With its grand opening ceremony May 9, attended by about 150 people, HearUSA will not only have its first store in the city it has called its corporate home for more than 35 years but will make the location at Mirasol one of six training bases in the United States.
That means jobs for young people looking to jumpstart a career that ultimately can land them six figures.
Hearing loss is the third most common physical condition people face every day and only 1 in 5 of those affected get help, the company says. With advances in hearing aids making them more acceptable to younger customers, the aging of the baby boomers and last year’s decision to allow the over-the-counter sale of hearing aids for those with mild to moderate hearing impairment, the industry may be entering a boom period.
HearUSA, which started in Palm Beach County in 1986 under the name HEARx, has 360 locations, including six others in the county, far behind industry leaders Miracle-Ear and Beltone, which both have more than 1,000 stores. It enters the Gardens market against a Miracle-Ear store east of Florida’s Turnpike on PGA Boulevard.
But HearUSA’s ratio of sales to customers makes it among the most productive, company President James Gilchrist said in an interview Tuesday.
“A lot of that is because we are an incredibly affordable option for our clients and because we help our clients maximize their insurance benefits,” Gilchrist said.
Sound-proof rooms and a simulator
The newly renovated building at 11400 N. Jog Road, owned by a company headed by local commercial property owner John C. Bills, has second-floor classrooms for up to 75 and third-floor corporate offices.
But customers likely won’t venture beyond the first floor, where they’ll be ushered into one of four large sound-proof rooms at what the company is calling its “Center of the Future.” There they can sit side-by-side with their salesperson while undergoing hearing tests and checking hearing aids.
While there’s a single sound booth in the building, like the kind a shopper may encounter when buying hearing aids at Costco or Sam’s Club, it’s for the most sensitive cases where absolute quiet is required.
In another room, the chirping of birds can be heard through Surround Sound speakers as customers take a simulated walk through a park scene, as displayed on a television monitor. The simulation lets them test their hearing aids in real-life situations, such as a park or a crowded restaurant.
To grow from about 100,000 customers a year to 1 million by 2028, the company is betting on its ability to train 200 apprentices a year at five locations, including Mirasol. The other “HearAcademies” will be in southern California, the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, the Northeast and the Midwest, Gilchrist said.
The apprentices will train to be “hearing care providers,” the salesperson who tests customers and matches them with the right hearing aid. Apprentices are paid as they undergo training and work for about a year under a licensed provider.
Gilchrist cited a study that found that 50 percent of U.S. counties, “not cities, counties,” lack adequate access to hearing care services.
“So, unfortunately, when you look at which counties are most impacted, (they are) typically going to be more elderly and lower income,” Gilchrist said.
To reach those in underserved communities, he said, the company needs more licensed hearing care providers, thus the emphasis on training. Even with technology to conduct hearing tests remotely, extending the company’s reach to areas without stores, a licensed provider must be involved.
Growing a career
To oversee an apprentice, providers have to attain board certification. The hearing care provider taking over the new Gardens location, Valerie Cramer, came from Jupiter. She’s being replaced in Jupiter by Katelyn McGuire, who apprenticed under Cramer in Jupiter.
“It’s been fun to watch our team,” Gilchrist said. “When we first started on this journey, I was concerned that we might not have enough of our own hearing care professionals that were willing to raise their hand to be sponsors. We have folks that are going back and getting their board certification just because they’re passionate about our purpose as an organization.”
Gilchrist, who lives in Houston but has an office at the Mirasol location, said he would recommend his own son, who is only 8, to go through the apprenticeship program someday.
“A typical hearing care professional for us is making a six-figure salary,” he said. “So it’s a tremendous opportunity for someone to grow their career and it’s one of the things that I get excited about seeing. Yes, we’re graduating a hearing-care professional. Yes, it’s helping us to progress on our mission of helping more people hear better, but for them personally, it’s also helping them grow in their career. It’s changing the trajectory, potentially of their family and their earning potential.”
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