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March 8, 2006

New technology sustains firm serving deaf customers

From: Pioneer Press - St. Paul,MN,USA - Mar 8, 2006


It hasn't been easy, but Harris Communications has survived.

One reason is that most of the time, technology has been the friend of founder and owner Robert Harris.

And an absolute godsend to his customers: the deaf and hard of hearing. They depend heavily on sight rather than sound. Advances on the Web and its many related innovations have empowered them immensely.

"Really, technology is the great equalizer," says Bruce Hodek, director for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Services Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Hodek, like Harris, is deaf.

Eden Prairie-based Harris Communications and many other companies will be showcasing these advances next month, when some 6,000 audiologists and exhibitors flock to the Twin Cities for the annual convention of the American Academy of Audiology.

As the baby-boomer generation ages and greater numbers of people face hearing difficulties, this field is burgeoning. And the Twin Cities, one of the world's leading centers for manufacturers of hearing aids, is an ideal site for the academy's meeting.

Harris Communications is just one small piece of the industry here.

Bob Harris is a distributor. He helps his customers figure out what equipment they need, gets it from the manufacturers to the dealers and provides various services to customers.

Harris fought off spinal meningitis when he was a baby, but the disease left him deaf. His first brush with business came in high school, when he worked for the lumber company where his father was president. He came to the Twin Cities in 1976 to join what is now Regions Hospital as a clinical psychologist.

Then he got interested in investing. He worked his way into his current business after he asked a real estate partner to purchase equipment that would help the two to communicate with one another. The partner countered by asking him to find the equipment at a discount. That led him to start a part-time business in his Fridley home that blossomed into Harris Communications.

Harris won't disclose sales figures. He's uneasy about letting the competition know too much about his business. He does say shipments rose last year while total sales were flat. That suggests tough price competition.

He also let loose of other numbers which show that, as he puts it, "We're surviving OK."

He had just 11 employees when I interviewed him 13 years ago for a column. Now there are 27.

He's tripled the company's space to 13,500 square feet.

His dealer network has grown to 310 from 123.

The technological changes have been huge.

In 1993, deaf people relied primarily on "TTYs" — teletype-like relay devices used by the deaf to communicate with one another and with the mainstream world. Mostly, Harris supplied TTYs to customers then.

Today, the deaf have many options to make calls and/or send messages.

They can make video-relay calls using videophones.

Or they can make calls using wireless, two-way e-mail pagers.

They send text messages and e-mails with the pagers.

Or they can do instant messaging through the pagers.

Harris carries a BlackBerry and a Sidekick (a phone and e-mail device) with him almost everywhere he goes. Deaf people love such products, he says.

His company supplies the equipment for all of these modes of communication. Leaf through its latest catalog and you'll find everything from 40 kinds of amplified telephones to baby-cry signalers, sign-language dice and pillow-vibrating alarm clocks.

But here's another change: Today, Harris Communications faces 10 rivals. Back in 1993, there were only five.

Much of the new competition is coming from Internet-only businesses, which focus almost entirely on price and distribute directly to customers. Their overhead costs are lower than those of distributors like Harris.

"The best thing about the new technology is more access, but that doesn't always translate into more sales for us," Harris says.

Now, he says, customers can shop around for the best price.

But in other ways, the new technology helps.

It gives Harris all of those new products.

It has enabled him to go beyond selling through his catalog, to set up an online store as well.

A year ago, he started up an e-mail list of prospects as a new marketing tool. Now he uses it to blast weekly e-mail promotions.

Some days are better than others. "We've had some setbacks," Harris says.

Recently, a supplier of pagers went bankrupt. Harris lost $60,000.

Harris says the profits have been small but the company has made money every year since he launched it in 1982.

Hodek, at the Minnesota Department of Human Services,says Harris is unusual in that he is one of relatively few deaf distributors serving the market.

"He been successful because he's been innovative," says Hodek, who has known Harris for 25 years.

For example, his online store offers live support. And he provides a menu of support services to make it easy for his dealers to promote more sales.

By hitching his business to technologies that make the world far more accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, he's making a big difference in a lot of people's lives.

That's a pretty good measure of any business.

Dave Beal can be reached at or 651-228-5429.

© 2006 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.