Chairman & CEO, Invacare Corporation
In 1979, Mal Mixon parlayed $10,000 of his own money to engineer the purchase of an Ohio-based wheelchair maker that nobody else wanted. Today Invacare is the world's leading manufacturer and distributor of medical products used in the home. Guided by his leadership, the company puts a premium on new product development and innovation, while providing help and hope to people of all ages with disabilities.
Mal Mixon takes his guest on a tour of the product showroom on the first floor of the Elyria, Ohio, headquarters of Invacare, the company he has headed for 28 years and turned into the global leader in the home medical product industry. Spotting a shiny red three-wheel motorized scooter, he sits down to demonstrate its mobility. "Our products aren't just about illness," he says. "They're about mainstreaming. Most spinal injuries affect 18- to 25-year-olds who have been in accidents. Our vehicles become an important factor in how they feel about themselves, so we pay attention not only to technology but to color and design."
Invacare started out making wheelchairs in 1885. But its product line today, sold throughout the world, includes some 200 different items such as customized and computerized wheelchairs, beds and bedside equipment, ambulatory aids, respiratory devices for patients with sleep disorders, and a revolutionary new system that enables emphysema patients and others to make portable compressed oxygen in their home and transfer it to lightweight containers they can easily carry around with them.
No wonder that Mixon points to new product development as a cornerstone of Invacare's success. Since he combined $10,000 of his own money with bank loans, a factory sale/leaseback arrangement, and the private sale of stock to lead a $7.8 million LBO in 1979 to buy the firm from Johnson & Johnson, Invacare's annual sales have grown from $19 million to $1.5 billion. "Everything starts with the product," says Mixon, who had been marketing CT scanners before doing the Invacare deal at the age of 39. "You want to have something different."
To achieve that, the company follows a process that features a continuous series of brainstorming sessions, where new concepts are presented to a "product planning council" representing all parts of the organization, from engineers and operations experts to marketers and cost analysts. Ideas are examined, debated, and then classified, to use HBS professor Clayton Christensen's terminology, as sustaining, innovative, or disruptive. "We're trying to put most of our R&D dollars into disruptive or innovative products," Mixon explains. "Speed is of the essence as well. Our average product development cycle used to be 24 months; it's now 12."
Complementing this, he adds, is a knowledgeable sales force that fosters relationships with home-care providers, nursing homes, and medical equipment retailers; a wide assortment of finance options; and a distribution system that processes orders the day they arrive for overnight delivery.
Mixon has also turned Invacare's talents and resources into other activities that help its customers. For years the company has lobbied for the passage of legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act. It sponsors many world-class disabled athletes (including recent winners of the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon who raced to victory in special chairs fabri_cated by an Invacare subsidiary), arranging for them to visit with children with disabilities in schools and hospitals. And it has long been involved with the Wheelchair Games sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America-organizations that resonate deeply with Mixon.
A native of Spiro, Oklahoma (population 1,200), he joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps as a student at Harvard College, where an NROTC scholarship helped him decide to stay in Cambridge rather than transfer to the U.S. Naval Academy. Entering the Marine Corps after graduation, Mixon trained as an artillery officer and landed in Vietnam in 1965 just as American involvement in the war began to intensify. When he wasn't leading a fire direction center on the ground, he was spotting enemy positions from a light plane and calling in air strikes and artillery fire. After a year, Mixon left Vietnam with several Air Medals and a citation recognizing his "exceptionally valorous actions" in combat. He also knew he wanted to go to business school. "I typed out my application to HBS in a tent in Chu Lai, South Vietnam," he recalls with a smile.
Mixon's experiences in the military and in business have made him acutely aware of the importance of leadership in every endeavor. "Leadership is the most important responsibility of any manager and especially the CEO," he has written. "A real leader must develop and articulate a sound vision and strategy, establish ethical standards, set examples for managers, know how to build and use the power of teamwork, and achieve objectives regardless of obstacles."
Mixon has accomplished that not only at Invacare but in a wide variety of other activities as well. He chairs the boards of two institutions with worldwide reputations—the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and the Cleveland Institute of Music. And to help the city's minority businesses, he created a $25 million investment fund called Minorities with Vision.
The passion for building businesses that began with Invacare almost three decades ago remains as strong as ever. "In the early 1980s, I helped a friend put together a deal to buy Royal Appliance, the maker of the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner," he explains. "After cashing out on that IPO, I became involved in some venture capital projects and launched my own LBO firm, MCM Capital, which has bought and sold some forty companies."
Mixon remembers that when he was a schoolboy, "My teachers would sometimes ask me whom I'd like to work for when I grew up. I hope that these days the question is being rephrased. Something like 'Are you going to start your own company some day?' has a nice ring to it."