Mal Mixon: A master class in leadership

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Thursday, December 3, 2020

ELYRIA, Ohio – Mal Mixon, who passed away on Nov. 30 at the age of 80, will be remembered by many as the “face of HME” for guiding Invacare and, in many ways, the industry at large for more than three decades. 

Mixon will be remembered for numerous contributions to the industry, but those who worked with him say his most significant contribution was a leadership style that helped to grow Invacare from $19 million in revenues and 300 employees in 1979, when he led a leveraged buyout of the company, to more than $1.4 billion in revenues and 6,000 employees at its peak. 

“First and foremost, there was no better salesman,” said Doug Harper, who worked at Invacare for 10 years. “He would do anything for the customer. If a customer was complimentary of a sales rep, the sales rep would get a call immediately. Of course, the opposite was also true. He did a great job taking care of the customer.” 

While at Invacare, Mixon was infamous for tagging along on sales trips to visit Invacare’s customers, covering the better part of the country over the course of any given year. 

“He thought business was fun,” said Cara Bachenheimer, who worked at Invacare for 13 years. “It wasn’t work and a big reason why was the customers. The thing that amazed me was how he traveled with his sales force, visiting with customers one-on-one, getting to know their businesses. That’s why there are countless great stories about Mal.” 

Joel Marx, chairman of Medical Service Company, a provider based in Cleveland, remembers being a recipient of those visits in the early days, when Mixon was still familiarizing himself with the industry. 

“When he bought the company, he lived only a couple of miles from my office, and he would stop in and say, ‘I have this wheelchair and I want to sell it to you,’” he said. “That’s how he learned the industry and made friends in the industry. And the thing is, he was a sales guy to the end – always out front, never behind a desk.” 

Mixon’s leadership style also meant having the same attention to detail with his employees.  

“He was the same Mal when he walked through the factory, talking to people there, as he was when he met the president of the United States, a U.S. senator or a governor,” said Lou Slangen, who worked closely with Mixon for 26 years at Invacare. “He never pretended to be anyone other than who he was – a boy who grew up in Oklahoma, who went to Harvard and who became a Marine and who went back to Harvard. He had this humbling self-confidence.” 

Another component of Mixon’s leadership style, those who worked with him say, was his emphasis on advocacy. Bachenheimer remembers his close relationship with former U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, for example, and how that relationship helped to play a role in implementing a 36-month instead of an 18-month cap on reimbursement for home oxygen therapy in 2009. 

“No one had known about the move to a cap – it was one of those, let’s do it late at night things,” she said. “Sen. Voinovich called Mal and he told Mal, ‘I wouldn’t leave until they promised to get it up to 36 months.’ Mal was one of the first to understand how important it was to be neck-deep in what was going on in D.C. When the government is responsible for such a big portion of your business, it’s part of doing business.” 

Mixon’s leadership style also involved giving back – he was generous with both his time and money. Stuart Cohen, who has worked at Invacare since 1999, remembers Mixon traveling for the day to Kentucky, where Cohen was a provider at the time, just to speak at a state association meeting, and his early support of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Invacare has been a major sponsor of the games since their inception in 1981. 

“He was extremely passionate about supporting veterans,” said Cohen, senior national sales manager for the government channel at Invacare. “When I would tell him, ‘I went to a VA hospital and helped a vet get a chair,’ he would just light up. Knowing that our products were helping veterans be independent and participate in sports – he’d never say no to that.”