Ken and Joan Austin invest time, money and passion in high-yield giving.
By Christina Williams
Ken Austin has hijacked the interview.
“Mrs. Austin,” he asks his wife, who sits next to him on the couch, “what gift are you most proud of?”
Joan Austin turns her face toward her husband of 53 years and stares at him blankly.
“Let me give you a hint,” says Ken, pressing on. “The library?”
“Oh,” Joan says, dismissing the Newberg Library addition, built on land she gave to the city. “That was a long time ago.”
“But that was a biggie,” her husband protests.
Ken and Joan Austin, each 75, are responsible for a lot of biggies when it comes to their giving. And like the land adjacent to the City of Newberg’s Carnegie library, which was given with the stipulation that the town’s citizens pass a bond to pay for the expansion, the Austins’ largess is usually calibrated for maximum impact.
“Our philanthropy is more than just cute stories,” says Ken Austin. “We’ve done some innovative things.”
Calling the Austins innovative is rather an understatement. In A-dec, they built a company that has effectively overhauled how dentists do their job. Along the way, A-dec quietly became the largest dental equipment manufacturer in the world with 1,000 employees and $170 million expected in sales this year. And Ken and Joan, the husband-wife team who must have been dynamos at their first trade show, became successful entrepreneurs and cherished philanthropists. This year, they’re receiving the Vollum Award for Lifetime Philanthropic Achievement from the Oregon chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
ADDING UP THE AMOUNT OF MONEY Ken and Joan have given away would not be a good way to measure the impact of their giving. That’s the opinion of Ed Ray, president of Oregon State University, a school that has benefited greatly from their generosity.
The Austins gave $4 million toward the recent overhaul of OSU’s Weatherford Hall and the founding of an undergraduate program focused on entrepreneurship. They’ve given money for athletics scholarships, a family business program, an auditorium and a marine mammal program. Joan Austin has logged more than two decades of service on the OSU Foundation board of directors.
“They think hard and very productively about how to leverage the impact of their dollars,” Ray says. “Not everybody is as good at that as they are.”
“They not only give, they follow up,” echoes Ilene Kleinsorge, dean of the OSU College of Business. “The stewardship of their philanthropy is impressive.”
It’s true for the big gifts — Ken and Joan were among the first business people to spend the night at Weatherford and stayed up late answering the entrepreneurship students’ questions — and for the small.
When the Newberg-Dundee Youth Outreach program, a small division of the Yamhill Community Action Project, came looking for money 11 years ago, the Austins not only stepped up by providing the money for a full-time drug and alcohol prevention specialist, but they handed over a blueberry patch on A-dec property that the program hires kids to tend each summer. They sell flats of fresh-picked blueberries — many of them to A-dec employees — and plow the proceeds back into the program.
“We have kids who work the blueberry patch because they want to work at A-dec some day,” says Kate Stokes, who oversees the program.
Going beyond the donation to make sure at-risk kids get some summer job experience is a classic Austin maneuver. So is the annual Oregon Symphony concert held in Newberg for the past 20 years courtesy of the Austins.
“They came to us looking for money so we asked, ‘What’s in it for our employees?’” Ken Austin says, referring to the first time the couple was hit up for a donation to the symphony. When they realized few of their employees had the time or money to trek to Portland for a concert, they started negotiating (with money attached, of course) for a concert in town.
It was while he was milling about at the reception for this year’s concert that Ken Austin had an epiphany about the “why” of their giving.
“We live in such a mobile society now,” Ken muses. “It makes philanthropy more difficult. But my great-grandfather is buried in Champoeg Cemetery. We have roots here. I don’t think we’d be giving in the same way if we didn’t.”
THE AUSTINS’ ROOTS — and their philanthropy — are inseparable from
A-dec, their company and an ultimate mom-and-pop-make-good tale.
This mom and pop met in Newberg on an arranged date while Ken Austin was an engineering student at Oregon State University (he was the first OSU student to suit up in the Benny the Beaver mascot costume in 1952, but that’s a whole other story). They married in 1953. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Ken, never a student who could buckle down enough to get the good grades, began job-hopping. In the eight years before inventing what became A-dec’s first products, he held seven jobs, the last of which landed them in Broomfield, Colo.
After starting A-dec in the basement of their Colorado house in 1964, they moved the company home to Newberg in ’65 when they got their first order for 200 Austin-engineered oral evacuators (the tiny vacuums used by dentists to keep mouths clean and dry during procedures). The company moved into a Quonset hut downtown and Ken oversaw things while Joan stayed behind in Colorado to sell the house and see their two children through the school year. Every time an employee completed $100 worth of work, Ken would hand them a $100 bill. “Joan will figure out the taxes when she gets here,” he’d tell them. She did and has been running the financial side of the business ever since.
A-dec — the name is an acronym for Austin Dental Equipment Company, but Ken and Joan make gentle fun of anyone compelled to say all four words — grew out of the Quonset hut and into other buildings in downtown Newberg before the Austins bought a farm just outside of town. The old farm became the company’s tree-studded campus, home to 600,000 square feet of manufacturing and administration buildings and the largest employer in Yamhill County.
Despite the near steroidal growth of the company, the Austins keep it personal. It’s obvious to the visitor who steps into the main building and comes eye to eye with the large, framed, formal portrait of the gracefully aged couple hanging above the receptionist’s desk and picks up the lobby magazines that still have their names on the mailing labels.
The couple set out to create a pleasant place to work. Joan talks about how few options there were for women to work in Yamhill County that weren’t outdoors and seasonal. “We offered a place that was warm and dry,” she says. Ken, meanwhile, brags about the machine shop: “You could eat off the floor.”
“Joan always heard me fuss at the places I worked,” Ken says. “We are treating employees like we’d want to be treated.”
BUT DON’T LET THE WARM AND FUZZIES distract you from the fact that Ken and Joan Austin are formidable in the way they’ve quietly transformed the world around them, both through their business and their philanthropy.
Take Joan. Here’s a woman who made it a priority to be home after school for the couple’s two children (son Ken Jr. and daughter Loni). Meanwhile she handled the logistics of a business that grew quickly to become the leader in its industry. She bought property around Newberg and developed it. She donated land with clever caveats that enticed voters to pass bond measures to pay for things such as the Newberg library addition (opened in 1986) and the elementary school that bears her name (opened in 2004). She also left her mark as the first (and only) woman to serve as president of the board of directors for Associated Oregon Industries, the state’s oldest and largest business lobby.
“If she was younger I know she would go into politics,” says Loni Austin Parrish of her mother. “She has such a strong need to give back.”
Parrish, an active volunteer, is immersed in downtown Newberg development projects, opening a gallery, a restaurant, two bed and breakfasts and an antiques store. She isn’t involved with A-dec — neither is her brother — but her husband, Scott, is the company’s general manager and heir apparent.
Ken and Joan naturally think about the company and how future generations will carry on the business. Ken assigns the names G2 to refer to his kids and G3 to his five grandchildren, all college age or older. “The next generation wants to continue the legacy, but I’m not sure about the G3s,” he says.
Family businesses struggling with questions of succession can get help from Oregon State University, whose Austin Family Business Program wears the family’s name, was started with their money, was shaped by their smarts and was dreamed up by Joan Austin.
“I would love to say I suggested a focus on family business, but I have to give credit [to Joan],” says Pat Frishkoff, the accounting professor who was tapped to become the founding director of the program.
In addition to providing the startup funding and giving $1 million for the program’s endowment, the Austins were generous with their advice and remain willing case studies for the program. “I don’t know if Ken ever thinks inside the box,” Frishkoff muses. “Joan’s ideas are more practical. She’s the one who pencils out the bottom line. I don’t think you’d ever want Ken in charge of the checkbook.”
But it was Ken who didn’t mince words when Frishkoff invited his critique of a dress rehearsal of the program’s first conference. She says, “He raked us over the coals on what didn’t work.”
It’s the same high standard of quality that shows up in the Austins’ giving. They’re not pushovers. They ask the tough questions and figure out the exponents: Just how far will their generosity go with this particular gift? If the answer is “not far enough,” theirs is an easy “no.”
After all, the power’s in the bang, not in the buck.
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