James Whittaker, Managing Director, Triton Hearing
“You may feel that you do not fit in and that you are the odd one out as you constantly seek to challenge the status quo. Don’t give up or become demoralized; for every Tesla, there are 50 Kodaks,” opines James Whittaker, the Managing Director of Triton Hearing.
With this ideology, never-give-up attitude, and insightful perception of the business world, James has successfully spearheaded New Zealand’s most innovative hearing healthcare company. Triton began operations over 20 years ago as a private practice in the north island of NZ. In 2009 the business was acquired by Sonova, the world’s largest hearing healthcare provider. James took over the NZ business in April 2015 and launched a growth strategy with the vision of becoming the hearing care provider of choice in New Zealand.
Delivering World-First Hearing Care Service and Solutions
In 2016, James purchased a 1949 Bedford bus and turned it into the most advanced mobile teleaudiology clinic in the world that’s been stationed at various expos in rural areas around the country performing TeleAudiology. “Penelope, as she is named, has travelled extensively throughout NZ and provided much-needed hearing care services to remote towns and specifically to support Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand who often have limited access to hearing care in these locations,” adds James.
Within five years of commencing the growth strategy, Triton has doubled its footprint and revenue, and quadrupled its brand awareness in NZ. Having innovation in its DNA, Triton always strives to offer its existing and prospective clients service and product innovations. It was the first company to introduce the Lyric product into the NZ hearing market. Inserted just a few millimetres from the eardrum, this extended wear hearing device is completely invisible to the naked eye, and there is no need to remove it daily. “Our service promise starts with a signed statement from me that hangs in every clinic, offering our Better Hearing Guarantee with my personal contact details. I truly believe that if you want to be a great brand, then this must be led from the very top of the organization,” affirms James.
Triton is also the first and only provider in New Zealand to offer hearing aids on subscription. Its Better Hearing Guarantee offers free lifetime care for the life of the hearing instruments. In March 2021, it opened Triton World of Hearing, the only hearing store that offers truly same-day service, including innovations such as 3d ear scanning that allows the company to have ear moulds made the same day. This is one of the only 10 Sonova concept stores globally and the first in the Southern Hemisphere. Other features of the concept store include an Experience Room which allows partners and friends the opportunity to understand the level of hearing loss their loved one has and the sounds that they are missing out on.
James’ Journey to Prominence
After having a successful career with British Airways in the UK for 11 years, James and his family immigrated to New Zealand in January 2009. Working for British Airways offered him insights into how rapid change can occur with little or no notice at all. The 9/11 incident transformed the airline industry and began to shape James’ entrepreneurial management style. This is when he realized it is critical to stay in front of the wave and foresee potential disruption in the industry before the competitors do. He took this learning with him to NZ, where he started running his first NZ hearing business, National Hearing Care.
When he reviewed the business model, he was concerned about how much reliance the business had on government funding and the potential collapse the business would face if the government policy changed. So, he instigated a strategy to transform the business into a more privately focused model and, in doing so, transformed the ratio of private to government-funded clients. One year after joining, the government subsidy was reduced by 1/3, presenting a huge opportunity for growth as the other industry providers struggled with the rapid change creating a mini-recession in their business.
While setting up his own disruptive hearing healthcare business initially, the biggest challenge for James was to raise significant capital. He planned to offer a unique service and price utilizing the teleaudiology model, and he knew in his mind that the model would be a huge success. But in his very first pitch meeting with one of NZ’s most well-known asset management companies, the Founding Partner stopped the discussion in the first 5 minutes. He had invested in an audiology business before, which had not gone well, and his perception was negative to the point that he stopped the meeting. However, a month later, the second pitch meeting went perfectly, and after 3 months of due diligence, James was invited to meet with the sole investor in Auckland whose first line was “it’s not a yes, James, but it’s also not a no”. James felt that the terms of his go-forward proposal would not be able to give justice to the business model he had created. “I firmly believe that if you look hard enough, you can find a silver lining. In this case, I joined Triton Hearing two months later and gifted my knowledge and business model. The business start-up experience was a tough lesson, but I can smile about it now, knowing that the innovative ideas were precisely as I had forecast, a huge success,” states James.
In 2017, James faced another major challenge when Triton launched a new innovative product by Phonak, the first in-the-ear hearing aid made from Titanium. For the first time, the product was launched using television commercials, and the success of the launch was unprecedented. However, due to the nature of the product, it was perceived as expensive and less accessible to the everyday Kiwi. This ran counter to the company’s growth strategy. Thus, it ran a brand sprint, spending a number of days reviewing, researching, and looking at a way to challenge this perception and ensure that it could realize its vision. The outcome was an innovative launch via national TV of its $495 devices. This was the first time any provider had promised to offer a pair of hearing aids for this price point publicly. The campaign itself was unique as it used animation and sound simulation to demonstrate the challenges that people have listening in noisy environments when they wish to focus on the conversation they are having. The year it launched the new hearing aid price point, Triton grew volumes by 35% on the year prior.
Guiding the Budding Entrepreneurs
Imparting the key lessons learned from his years of experience, James urges the emerging entrepreneurs to understand their strengths and weaknesses and focus on their strengths while surrounding themselves with a team that supports them in their weaker areas. He also encourages them to never stop learning and have humility. According to the avid leader, not every decision can have a spreadsheet of data to back it up. So, entrepreneurs should learn from their mistakes and make at least one mistake a year because if they are not making any mistakes, they’re probably not trying hard enough. Lastly, James advises them to understand their competitive strength.
“Let the competition make their own decisions and try not to be trapped into copying them. This is particularly true when you have bigger competitors; they will generally have more scale and more money than you, so make sure your brand stands out from the crowd,” concludes James.