Rayovac grows from an idea born at a kitchen table to part of a multibillion-dollar corporation by sticking to what it does best.
Always curious to find out what the hearing aid market is thinking, Tom Begley, director of sales at Rayovac, looks high, low, and online. Consumer complaints arrive in all media. Sometimes, consumers’ comments or complaints wind up on message boards. One such comment posted on a Web site came from a consumer who wanted to know why—in a day and age when it is possible to put a man on the moon—batteries do not last longer.
That comment was not unique, Begley says; some consumers do not realize that batteries are more powerful today than ever before. Although end users enjoy the advancements made in hearing aid technology, the fact that the improved quality of the devices requires more power to fuel those bells and whistles sometimes escapes them—as does the fact that some hearing aid batteries have doubled in capacity over the years. For instance, when Rayovac introduced its size 10 battery in 1986, it contained 50 milliamp hours. That same size battery today has 105 milliamp hours, an increase of more than 100% in the same amount of space.
“Hearing aids are better than ever,” Begley says. “One of the reasons they can be better than ever is because we have dramatically increased the capacity of the power source compared to what it was 20 years ago.”
Birth of a Battery Company
Rayovac is thinking about history a lot this year, as it celebrates its centennial. Begley says one of the keys to the company’s success in the constantly evolving world of hearing aids is remaining steadfast to its business approach. “In a way, we haven’t changed a lot. That has been one of our secrets. There’s been a lot of consistency,” Begley says. “We have a group that focuses exclusively on the professional hearing aid business, where most companies won’t focus and work specifically with this industry.”
Like many companies of the early 1900s, Rayovac got its start after two businessmen began tinkering at their kitchen tables. With eggbeaters on loan from their wives, James Ramsay and P.W. Strong worked vigorously in their kitchens, using a secret formula that mixed electrolytes with zinc to create their first batch of dry cell batteries. The technique they used to produce the power cells was known as the French Process, and the two used the name for their own when assigning a moniker to their business, founding the French Battery Company in Madison, Wis, in 1906.
One year later, Charles Burgess, a professor, joined the team. Burgess not only helped improve the company’s batteries, but, during the Roaring Twenties, he developed a flashlight that would be dubbed the “Ray-o-light.” The flashlight was so good that Charles Lindbergh carried it in his cockpit when he crossed the Atlantic.
The company also produced a battery for a radio that utilized vacuum tubes. The company did not follow the same formula it used in naming the flashlight, however; instead of calling the device the “Ray-o-music” or “Ray-o-talk,” the company considered the technology that it powered and gave the battery the “Rayovac” moniker after the vacuum tubes.
Rayovac’s patented hearing aid from the 1930s.
The battery and its name were so successful that by the 1930s, the French Battery Company was no more, and Rayovac became the name of the company.
Rayovac actually dabbled in the manufacturing of hearing aids for awhile. In 1933, the company patented the first wearable vacuum tube hearing aid, the Stanley Phone.
Forget about batteries being integrated with the device itself. Banish the idea of all components being worn above the neck or even the belt, for that matter. The Stanley Phone required wearers to strap the power source to their leg. Neither inconspicuous nor inexpensive, the Stanley Phone also needed two costly batteries.
Rayovac eventually secured a patent for the unit, and then did the unthinkable: It gave the patent away. Unlike many companies at the time of the Great Depression that were desperate to get a foothold in any business, Rayovac decided that it did not belong in the hearing aid industry. Instead, the company narrowed its focus on the energy sources that powered the units, and decided to continue producing the batteries for the hearing devices.
It is still possible to catch a glimpse of the leather-bound Stanley Phone at the Kenneth W. Berger Hearing Aid Museum and Archive at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.
Sticking to What You Know
After its brief flirtation with manufacturing hearing aids, Rayovac decided to stick to what it knew best and focus its energy on making the best batteries it could.
During the 1950s, hearing aid technology made a significant step forward when transistor technology allowed for miniaturization of the devices. This smaller device required new technology to power it, so Rayovac developed what are known as “button cells” because of their size and shape. These smaller batteries utilized mercury as well as silver chemistries.
Rayovac’s original zinc air, mercury, and silver batteries.
In 1977, battery technology made another giant leap when the Gould Battery Company in Minneapolis introduced the first zinc air hearing aid battery. The battery remains the preferred chemistry today because it provides the highest energy density compared to any other style of battery. Three years later, Rayovac introduced its first zinc unit for hearing applications. According to the company, the cell offered a 6% performance advantage over the then-current market offering. “We followed in [Gould’s footsteps],” Begley says. “We weren’t the first; we just did it better.”
Rayovac’s research team was also working on a smaller battery that the company’s marketing manager thought was “perfect.” He wanted to articulate its perfection with its name, and decided to call it the “10.” Initially, other battery companies cried foul, Begley says. They insisted on calling the unit a “230,” after the same-sized battery that was already on the market, and claimed that they would never accept Rayovac’s name for the battery. Needless to say, in a few years “10” was the accepted handle for the button cell.
Six years after the release of the 10, hearing aid industry representatives approached Rayovac and told the company that they needed a smaller battery for the completely in the canal (CIC) units they were creating. Soon thereafter, Rayovac released the size 5 battery.
“We have probably reached the limits of size. You are not going to see batteries getting any smaller, but you certainly are going to see them get more powerful and have an increased capacity,” Begley says.
A few years ago, the size 13 was the biggest seller in the hearing health care industry, but it has since been surpassed by the 312, followed by the 10, Begley says, adding that one of the reasons for this is that most hearing aid manufactures are trying to downsize the battery requirement. They want to use the smallest battery possible so they can reduce the size of their device. They also want the hearing aid wearer to get optimum life from their batteries, so by improving a battery’s capacity, hearing aids can use a smaller battery. A consumer who had to use a size 675 battery in the past can now get by with a size 13 and, therefore, use a smaller device.
“Rayovac’s ability over the past 2 years to improve the capacity and the performance [of batteries] now allows [hearing aid users] to not only have more features and benefits on a device, but also have a slightly smaller device,” Begley says.
Rayovac is currently producing its seventh generation of hearing aid batteries, Begley says, and the capacity and reliability of the company’s batteries have increased almost every year.
Today, Rayovac’s power cells include those for hearing aids and cochlear implants. Rayovac Ultra ProLine premium zinc air hearing aid batteries provide long-lasting performance. The company’s Cochlear Plus batteries are designed to meet the specific high-power needs of patients with cochlear implants. These specialized batteries come in a 60-pack carton in size 675, and feature a user-friendly dial packaging.
Subtle changes to the batteries continue. Last spring, Rayovac introduced a new sealing process that eliminates electrolyte migration, which results in leakage. This change extends the battery’s shelf life by 33%. A new air management system combines a new air cathode, a diffusion control element, and new vent hole design. Those three changes provide consistent airflow throughout the life of the battery, which maximizes capacity and consistency. The changes in the sealing process and air management system combine to create consistent performance in high-power aids and the world’s only 4-year shelf life, Begley says.
A Broad Spectrum
During the past decade, Rayovac has grown from a $400-million company to a $2.8-billion company, with acquisitions playing a big factor in that growth. One of those acquisitions was Spectrum. As Rayovac’s holdings became increasingly diverse, the recently purchased Spectrum lent its name to the entire corporation: Last May, Rayovac Corp officially changed its name to Spectrum Brands Inc, after shareholders voted on the subject at the company’s 2005 annual meeting. After the decision, Rayovac Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dave Jones said the name Spectrum Brands more clearly describes the company today. “This name change symbolizes the completion of the transformation of Rayovac Corporation from a US battery manufacturer to a global diversified consumer products company with a robust portfolio of brands across seven major product categories,” Jones said in a statement.
Brand recognition being what it is, however, Rayovac batteries did not change names.
Among other acquisitions were a number of battery companies, including Europe-based Varta and China-based Ningbo Baowang. Additionally, the company reacquired Rayovac Latin-America, which had split off a few years ago.
The employees at Rayovac’s Portage, Wis, factory produce the company’s hearing aid batteries.
Rayovac’s products are available in more than 1 million stores in 120 countries around the world. With corporate headquarters in Atlanta, Rayovac has approximately 9,300 employees worldwide. The single domestic factory that produces the hearing aid batteries is in Portage, Wis, employs about 200 people, and is roughly the same size of the manufacturing plant in the United Kingdom, which provides batteries for Europe and mainland Asia. Rayovac also employs 30 people each in the United States and the United Kingdom to work directly with the hearing aid industry to make sure that hearing device manufacturers’ needs are met.
Working with manufacturers is an important business element for the company. Begley participates closely with the field as the chairman of the Hearing Industries Association (HIA) trade liaison committee. He also sits on the exhibitor advisory panel for the American Academy of Audiology as well as the newly formed exhibitor advisory committee of the Academy of Dispensing Audiologists. Begley says he does all of this to make sure he knows the industry’s needs and to help his company meet those needs. Begley’s boss, Randy Raymond, the global vice president of hearing aids, is also the current chairman of the HIA.
Golfer and Rayovac spokesman Arnold Palmer tours Rayovac’s Wisconsin plant.
The most famous person on the company’s payroll, however, is Arnold Palmer. The company’s relationship with the golfer dates back to 1992 when Rayovac searched for a spokesperson. The owner of the company loved golf and knew that Palmer was hearing impaired. Palmer began working with the company in 1996 after 2 decades of wearing hearing aids.
Rayovac created the Arnold Palmer Hearing Loss Hotline that prospective hearing aid customers could call to listen to Palmer talk about his own hearing loss and his take on hearing devices. Callers can hear him discussing the pleasure of hearing the ping of the ball when he hits it and how the devices helped to improve his golf game. “Yes, we wanted to sell more batteries,” Begley says of using Palmer as a spokesman, “but we also wanted to sell more hearing aids because we felt if the industry was successful, we would be successful along with it.”
Palmer is a big advocate for the hearing industry, Begley says, adding that the golfer is passionate when he discusses how much the devices have improved over the years. One of his missions, as an ambassador to the business, is to communicate that there is no stigma attached to wearing a hearing aid.
“They’re there to help you,” Begley says. “You should have no more difficulty wearing a hearing aid than you should taking an aspirin.”
Stephen Krcmar is a staff writer for Hearing Products Report.