Helping people hear better
Brown Hearing turns 60
Last updated 1/18/2022 at 7:05pm
The term family business is appropriately applied to the Brown Hearing Centers located in Orange and multiple other locations in Texas. The business celebrates its sixtieth year in operation this year.
Three generations of family members have worked during the last six decades to make the Brown Hearing Centers the place to go for people wanting to hear better. During that time over a hundred thousand customers have been able to hear life's sounds more clearly and communicate with relatives or friends more effectively.
The Brown Hearing Centers were started by Lee Brown, a U.S. Navy veteran, who was in the insurance business just for the money, but he was not very happy doing that. Brown and his wife Dorothy moved from Victoria, Texas to Palacios where Dorothy was from originally when he began selling hearing aids.
In the beginning it was literally a door-to-door business. At that time there was no license required for those administering hearing tests and all that was needed was the purchase of an audiometer. Lee would knock on the doors of residences in an effort to sell the hearing aids.
Brown adopted the motto "No Sale, No Eat" to encourage himself and later his family members in the business to make the sales necessary to put food on the table, but there was also the motivation to assist people with their hearing. "He liked the hearing aid business because he could see right away that he was helping people and that was real important to him," Dorothy related.
In 1962 the Browns moved to Orange and purchased an office from an ear, nose, and throat doctor that was jointly used by a podiatrist, a foot doctor. Dorothy recalled, "Sometimes we didn't know if the customers were coming in for their ears or their feet."
Not all of the transactions were initially cash based. Lee's daughter Karlene Toohey reminded that Brown would actually trade or barter items with his customers for hearing aids. People without money might use produce from their gardens or other different products to exchange for the hearing aids.
A humorous example of such a transaction that Dorothy remembered was when Lee joked that he had brought "home the bacon" that day. Payment was made with a little pig traded for the hearing aid. Lee's grandson Eddie Toohey observed that Brown may not have always been the best of traders, he just liked helping people to improve their hearing.
Through the years the main motivation for Lee Brown was helping people. "He was more interested in seeing the immediate look in their eyes whenever they could hear for the first time," Eddie Toohey emphasized.
Sixty years of helping people hear better have allowed the Brown family members to serve a huge number of customers. The idea of a family business comes into play again as the Brown Hearing Centers have helped generations of many families locally.
The elderly have been the primary customers for the business, but Dorothy has seen the clientele broaden to include younger members of families. Many of those families now include multiple generations of faithful customers with the Brown Hearing Centers.
The centers are operated by three generations of the family. Lee passed away in 2012, but his wife Dorothy still has input into how the business is run.
Daughter Karlene has a great business acumen, so while Lee enjoyed the selling and servicing part of the business, he turned the managing of the day to day operations over to her. Karlene was joined by her husband Eddie Toohey to manage the offices.
Karlene and Eddie have six sons, three of whom including the younger Eddie help operate the different offices in Texas. Brown Hearing Centers began in Orange and now include locations in Beaumont, Lumberton and Nederland within the Golden Triangle. Other locations are as far west as Bastrop, Gonzales, and Cedar Park in the Austin area. There are also locations in Kirbyville, Trinity, Lake Jackson, and as far south as Bay City.
The addition of other offices is an answer to meeting the demand for better hearing not only in Texas, but also in Louisiana. "As our customer need base grew now we've got the main offices plus hundreds of service centers where we go to senior centers or nursing homes and provide our services because in smaller communities they can't support an office, but we can go once a month or so to provide the service," Karlene Toohey explained.
Eddie Toohey, her husband, came from a family that worked repairing televisions which is where he picked up a knowledge of electronics. Beginning in the 1980s the Brown Hearing Centers led by Toohey began manufacturing their own hearing aids.
Grandson Eddie indicated the Brown Hearing Centers was one of the only hearing aid manufacturers in Texas for nearly 30 years. The manufacturing of the hearing aids was discontinued in about 2016 because the Food and Drug Administration and the regulatory authorities became too burdensome shortly after the hearing aids became digital. It was more feasible to order the devices from other manufacturers than to invest in the newer equipment to meet the new government specifications and regulations.
In the time since the business first opened in 1962 the hearing devices have changed significantly from just an early analog hearing aid with no volume control or custom settings, to analog hearing aids that could be adjusted with a screwdriver, to programmable analog hearing aids, to digital programmable hearing aids. "Now we have hearing aids that can connect to your smart phone. You can stream music and phone calls, and you can be in Alaska and I can be here in Orange, Texas, and I can make custom programming adjustments to your hearing aids anywhere in the world remotely," Eddie Toohey stated.
Regulatory changes are coming according to Toohey, and the Brown Hearing Centers are waiting to see where that goes. Toohey indicated, "Talking to manufacturers and industry insiders, hearing aids are going to be around for the foreseeable future. There will be with the regulatory stuff coming up maybe some changes within the industry, and we've positioned ourself as a company to be ready for those changes if they come. So, we're three generations on and we can support a few more generations."
Eddie was one of the youngest people to be licensed in Texas to perform hearing exams. He started out selling the hearing aids and traveling all over the state from Orange to Interstate 45, and from Galveston all the way to the Oklahoma border. Now he is morphing into the managerial side including contract negotiations primarily in the Orange and Nederland locations.
Dorothy humbly admitted she was not always involved in the business on a daily basis, but she did have a hand in most of the major decisions concerning the building of this family business. Eddie pointed out his grandmother was a major part of the behind the scene actions in a corporate role with the company.
Karlene handles most of the office work for the business, only handing off those duties to her mother the six times Karlene went on maternity leave. She and her husband Eddie are still in charge of running the Brown Hearing Centers as a whole. "Now we're trying to transition to our children taking over that management of the business, so we're in a transition period right now to the next generation," Karlene said.
A third generation of a family operation in business is rare. Karlene pointed out that only about 30 percent of family-run businesses make it to the second generation. The Browns and Tooheys are in their third generation which is a testament to their faith in God, the foundation of the business established by their founders, and then to their great employees who are not all family members but are a key to the success of the Brown Hearing Centers.
Both Karlene and Eddie praised their employees that have worked for the business over the last 60 years. The average workplace has a changeover in employees every three to five years. Employees at the Brown Hearing Centers average close to twenty years with the centers, some have been there over thirty years.
As loyal as the employees are who work for the Brown Hearing Centers, the clients are lifelong. Eddie did a patient database which eliminated patients who have passed away or are no longer using the services of the centers and there were still over 10,000 records of clients who are current. Eddie replied, "I have seen patients who will say 'my grandpa got hearing aids from Lee, and my dad got hearing aids from your dad.' So, we're not only in our third generation of ownership or third generation of management but on our third generation of patients."
Most customers hear about the Brown Hearing Centers through some form of marketing or from friends and family who have been previously helped. They are encouraged to call the office to make an appointment for testing with an in-depth screening of their hearing. If it is determined the patient needs or will benefit from a hearing aid an in-office demo is offered to them to see what it is going to be like and to experience the correction it will make to their hearing.
The purchase of a hearing aid from the Brown Hearing Centers does not conclude the services provided by them, but it does end the payments. Once the hearing aid is purchased all follow-up checkups or office visits are no charge to the patient. Only if repairs are needed to the hearing aids are any future payments required.
Most hearing aids last four to six years. Repeat customers for second or later hearing aids are very frequent at the Brown Hearing Centers. The centers try to get annual hearing tests done on their patients as part of the service provided so that if the patient loses more from their hearing the hearing aids can be reprogrammed or recalibrated to whatever the hearing loss has deteriorated to at that point.
Hearing aids are not necessarily designed to cure certain ear or hearing ailments like tinnitus. Wearing a hearing aid can cover up the ringing associated with the tinnitus. The technicians at Brown Hearing Centers are not doctors so they cannot perform any kind of ear surgery, but will recommend the patient to see their doctor for a follow-up or they will give a referral to an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
Family owned businesses are the life blood of this country. Karlene commented, "It's so important to do business with small family businesses because they need our support right now."
Brown Hearing Centers practice what they preach when it comes to using family businesses. They recently remodeled the office building in Orange using a family business to do the work. They also use a family business to provide the coffee service for the staff at the office. Karlene added they try to do business with small family businesses as much as possible.
As mentioned previously, the first priority in running this family business is a faith in God. "We really trust in God to provide for us and He does and He has. He has never failed us yet," Dorothy testified.
The business has been a vehicle Dorothy believes that God has used to see the family through the years including the establishment of a Bible college here in Orange. The Wisdom Bible Institute was begun near the start of the new millennium and lasted for thirteen years. It allowed the family to go on numerous mission trips and bring hearing aids to people in South America and Honduras. "It has been a huge blessing for us to be involved," Eddie concluded.
Dorothy said Lee's faith in God increased as the years went by and his business grew. Dorothy quoted the Bible from Matthew chapter 6 verse 33, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you." That has been the family's motto now for the last sixty years echoed by all three Dorothy, Karlene, and Eddie of each different generation.