Armed with an idea and the $200 they each received after serving in World War II, two boyhood friends rented a store in the Bronx, NY for $27 a month and launched a business that they named after themselves. That was in 1946, and today, Harold Spar and Henry Meltsner are still a pair, in business and in friendship. And this year, the companies they founded together, Hal-Hen Company and Widex U.S.A., are celebrating their 60th and 50th anniversaries, respectively.
Hal-Hen and Widex U.S.A. remain family owned and operated, and the Spars and Meltsners plan to keep them that way, they said in an interview. Harold's son, Eric, is president of Hal-Hen and vice-president of Widex U.S.A., and Henry's son, Ron, is president of Widex U.S.A. and vice-president of Hal-Hen.
“We want to continue what we've been doing for the past 60 years hopefully for another 60,” Harold said.
AN ENDURING FRIENDSHIP
Harold and Henry met in the late 1930s while sophomores at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Henry, who had just moved to the area from Queens, another borough of New York, sat down next to Harold in the cafeteria.
“I think we both have the same perspective on life, you know?” Henry said, explaining how the two became friends. They often took trips together, going camping, skiing, and waterskiing.
After graduation, the pair remained close, both geographically and figuratively. They worked just a block apart in New York City, with Harold on 37th Street and Henry on 36th, and they had lunch together every day, a tradition they continue on the 3 days a week they now work.
“I think they're closer with each other than they are with our mothers,” Ron said.
After Pearl Harbor, both young men enlisted in the military, where they were in the first naval radar program, Ron said, giving them the background in electronics that would make their future careers possible.
It was during their military service that the pair decided to go into business together. “But we didn't know what,” Henry said. “We were just two kids.”
In the beginning, Hal-Hen manufactured a wide range of products, from ax handles to colored light bulbs. The owners saw a need for colored bulbs because manufacturers were not allowed to make them during the war.
But 6 months later, another need came to light. The American Earphone Company, which manufactured hearing aids during World War II, asked Hal-Hen to make a cord for the company's hearing aid.
INNOVATION AND EVOLUTION
“When Hal and I made the first cords,” Henry said, “we both went out to call on hearing aid dispensers. We got the idea at that time to make cords for all the hearing aids because each dispenser was an exclusive franchise, and you couldn't get cords from anybody else if you traveled. That led to the idea of starting a supply company for the hearing impaired.”
As they continued to focus on fulfilling unmet needs, Hal-Hen's product portfolio grew. For example, they invented the Dri-Aid—a pouch filled with silica gel that prevents hearing aids from accumulating moisture—because they realized there was a market for it and because Harold knew the United States government had a surplus of the pouches, which soldiers had used during World War II to keep maps dry.
Harold also devised a way to camouflage hearing aid cords after a dispenser in New Jersey told him of a customer who didn't want the cord from her body aid to show above her wedding gown: He hid the cord within the pearls of a necklace.
THE START OF WIDEX
Ten years after the men had started Hal-Hen, their recognition of the need to change with the times led them into the business of manufacturing hearing aids themselves, and not just cords.
“When the transistor was developed, [manufacturers] started to produce hearing aids that were worn behind the ear, which eliminated the need for a cord,” Henry said. “So we decided that we'd better get into the hearing aid business.”
Harold and Henry collaborated with two families in Denmark, the Topholms and Westermanns, who were just then founding Widex, to create Widex U.S.A. in 1956.
At the time, each dispenser in this country was an exclusive dealer of a given brand, so getting dispensers to buy Widex products posed a challenge. “It was really a new concept to have a hearing aid from Europe that wasn't associated with an exclusive store,” Ron said.
They were only able to overcome the prevailing mindset through perseverance, Henry said, by “going back, going back, and going back until the people had confidence in you. They'd buy one and that's how it all started. And then we developed friendships over our lifetime.”
Henry and Harold also visited universities, hospitals, and organizations for the hard of hearing, convincing them to carry their instruments to test patients and then to refer them to a dispenser for a Widex aid.
“That's what really broke the barrier,” Ron said. “That started in the 60s when the audiological clinics, whatever the setting might be, would refer patients out to the dispenser. In that situation, even if the dispenser were an exclusive dealer, he was obligated to fit the hearing aid that the clinic recommended. That opened the door up for us and for others as well.”
ENTER THE SECOND GENERATION
Ron joined the family business in 1974 after graduating from the University of New Mexico. He began as a sales representative based in New Mexico and calling on clinics and dispensers in the West and Southwest before returning to the East to work out of Widex headquarters in Long Island City, NY.
“When we were kids we always worked at the companies during our vacations and during the summer, and I was always interested in going into business,” he said. “Our fathers always had a lot of trust in us,” he added. “They gave us responsibilities and they let us try our own ideas, so that made it a good environment for us to start to learn how to run the companies.”
Eric joined Hal-Hen in 1986, after receiving a degree in finance from the University at Albany, State University of New York. He said, “I think the most important thing my father did for me was to have enough confidence to give me a wide range of responsibilities. He explained to me that everyone can make mistakes at some point; the key is to learn from them, and I've always kept that in mind.” With the advent of digital signal processing hearing aids in 1996, Eric joined Widex to help manage that business.
Eric's brother-in-law, Lee Frankel, also works for the family businesses. He joined Hal-Hen in the early 1980s and is now vice-president of sales and marketing for Widex U.S.A.
Figure. While the tw...Image Tools
Remarkably, Denmark-based Widex is also still owned and managed by the two families that founded it in 1956. Ron called this 60-year-old set-up of four families—two on each side of the Atlantic—“pretty unusual” in today's “world of public companies and conglomerates.” The technology the Topholms and Westermanns provide is a source of strength for Widex U.S.A., Henry said. “We try to keep ahead of everyone else.”
THE HUMAN TOUCH
James Cola, director of marketing for Widex U.S.A., mentioned another company strength—people. “Hal and Hen lead by example,” he said. “They continue to inspire our employees, and they have really instilled the values of a family business at Widex. This is a very good place to work.”
Eric agreed. There's no bureaucracy in our company. If someone has a good idea, it doesn't matter what their position is at the company—we're open to them. And if something is the best approach or the best strategy or the best idea, we're interested in instituting it for the company.
This personal touch can be seen in the relationships between the companies and their clients as well. “From the very beginning when we called on Widex dispensers, we built up a personal relationship with each one of them,” Henry said. “We would call them, find out about their family. It developed over years and years, so we did have a loyalty.”
And after 60 years, Henry and Harold, who just turned 85, still look forward to going to work.
“With the way things keep changing technologically it has such an interest for us, and I want to keep up to date on what's going on,” Henry said. “It's really important. I find it very exciting to come in every day.”
© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.