Health

Longtime chairman and CEO of Invacare, A. Malachi ‘Mal’ Mixon III has died – cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Aaron Malachi Mixon III, the can-do entrepreneur who turned Elyria’s Invacare Corp. into a multibillion-dollar maker of home health care equipment died Monday.

The longtime chairman and CEO of Invacare, Mixon, 80, had been in ill health the last year. He died at the Cleveland Clinic.

In addition to his corporate leadership, Mixon, who went by “Mal,” was known for his generous efforts in support of charitable and academic causes. In addition to monetary gifts, he also served on several boards.

“He will be greatly missed,” his longtime friend Ernest Mansour said. Mansour, a lawyer, met Mixon when Invacare needed some legal help shortly after Mixon acquired the company. That relationship grew into a decade’s long friendship.

“It was a very personal relationship, as well as a business relationship,” Mansour said.

Mixon, who went by “Mal,” was born on May 22, 1940, in a small, rural Oklahoma town called Spiro (SPY-ro). His father was a meat salesman. His mother was a secretary.

On Saturdays, he took trumpet, voice and piano lessons about 15 miles away in Fort Smith, Ark.

“I practiced two hours a day on the piano until I was 18,” Mixon told The Plain Dealer in 1997. Mixon also stood out in high school basketball, baseball and football. “For a while, I even took ballet,” he said.

Years later, Mixon continued his commitment to music by serving as chairman and benefactor of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He and his wife, Barbara, gave the institute $3 million in 2005 for an expansion.

Mixon’s father pushed his son to apply to Harvard University. Mixon paid his way with scholarships, loans and jobs. He earned a bachelor’s in physical sciences and a master’s in business administration.

In between the degrees, he spent four years in the Marine Corps., including a one-year tour in Vietnam.

Mixon met his wife, a Wellesley economics student from Shaker Heights, during undergraduate school at Harvard. The two shook hands at a fraternity party.

“We were opposites. I was shy. He was confident and outgoing,” Barbara Mixon said during a 1997 interview. “He always thought there was nothing that couldn’t be done. I was always looking at why things wouldn’t work.”

Mixon’s “Yes, you can” attitude marked his public and private careers, and even was used as a promotional line for Invacare, maker of wheelchairs and other products for people who are physically challenged. The attitude helped him survive a bout with testicular cancer as a young man.

The Mixons settled near Barbara’s hometown, living in Cleveland Heights for nearly 20 years before moving to Hunting Valley, the upscale Cleveland suburb, in the late 1990s.

The couple has two adult children, Ki and Elizabeth.

In Cleveland, Mixon took a job as a manager trainee at Harris Corp., then a maker of printing presses. He served as a sales representative and director of marketing. Harris left Cleveland in 1978.

Mixon worked at two other small companies before landing at Ohio Nuclear Inc. in Solon. The maker of medical imaging equipment was owned by a Boston financial services company, which dubbed its collection of health care businesses Technicare Corp.

Mixon was a bulldog salesman, said J.B. Richey, an engineer who designed Technicare products and later partnered with Mixon and other investors at Invacare.

About to lose a sale, Mixon remembers telling the president of a North Carolina hospital that he was paying General Electric Co. too much for a CT scanner. Retelling the story to a Sales & Marketing Management reporter in 1995, Mixon said he knew this because he had read the GE order upside down on the president’s desk.

“GE is not selling to everyone at the same price – you’re paying $50,000 more than you should,” Mixon told the president. “And if you pick up the phone and call the GE district office and tell the manager that Mr. Mixon from Ohio Nuclear is sitting in the lobby, I think they’ll cut the price by $50,000.”

GE did as Mixon predicted. But Mixon got the sale.

In 1978, Technicare and its obscure wheelchair maker, Invacare, were sold to Johnson & Johnson. Mixon, who was vice president of sales and marketing for Technicare, had an itch to run his own company.

So a year later he kicked in the only $10,000 he had, leveraged Invacare’s assets with bank loans, found several investors and bought the company, which had annual sales of $19 million and 300 workers at plants in Elyria and Lodi.

The deal “was the end of a long saga of trying to get out of working for someone else,” laughed fellow entrepreneur and Invacare co-investor Dan T. Moore.

But working for himself was tough, at first.

“I remember making my first sales calls in early 1980, and most customers were quick to tell me all the things wrong with Invacare and our products,” Mixon told Paraplegia News, a newsletter for disabled people, in 1997.

“In fact, I refer to this period as the ‘Rodney Dangerfield era,’ because we truly got ‘no respect’ from anyone,” he said, referring to the schtick of the late comedian.

Everest & Jennings in Camarillo, Calif., which owned 80 percent of the sluggish wheelchair market, dwarfed Invacare, which held about 10 percent.

Mixon woke up Invacare by strengthening its distribution network, reducing its debt and juicing product development. He broadened Invacare’s products through acquisitions and internal development to include home health care products such as power wheelchairs, oxygen concentrators and beds.

Mixon juggled competitor pricing and shifting federal insurance policies from the beginning, selling his company to the public in 1984. Invacare’s sales surpassed the $1 billion mark in 2000. By 2005, Invacare had sales of $1.4 billion, 6,000 worldwide employees and a distribution network in 80 countries.

A year later, cheap foreign imports and falling Medicare reimbursement forced Mixon to cut 225 jobs from Invacare’s Elyria wheelchair plant. Altogether, Invacare said it would cut 600 jobs and close several plants worldwide by 2008.

“That breaks Mal’s heart,” Moore said, at the time.

Through his company’s ups and downs, Mixon became “Mr. Invacare.” Talking about the travails of another local entrepreneur, Mixon told The Plain Dealer that living your company makes you vulnerable to criticism.

“It’s hard sometimes to be totally open-minded . . . When they criticize your company, they’re criticizing you, and it hurts,” he said.

Mixon remained CEO and chairman of Invacare until spring 2010, when he stepped down after suffering a stroke.

Mixon invested in the rejuvenation of another old-line company, Royal Appliance Manufacturing Co., which went on to develop a line of Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners. He invested in Steris Corp., the Mentor maker of infection control systems, among other companies.

Mixon also invested in small manufacturers, largely in Northeast Ohio, through MCM Capital Corp. in Beachwood, which he co-founded in 1992. The first “M” in the investment firm’s name stands for “Mixon.”

“He’s done a lot of deals,” Moore said. “In terms of success, he’s the bellwether.”

Mixon also liked to gamble on entrepreneurs. He was a founding investor in Roundwood Capital, a limited money management partnership, and Resilience Capital Partners, a turnaround fund, in Beachwood.

In 1997, Mixon told The Plain Dealer that he avoided Wall Street for its limited investment returns.

“To me, you want to look at something that will give you five to 10 times your money,” he said. “I sort of look at the stock market as a place I park my money when I don’t have something better to do with it.”

He also was instrumental in founding MWV Pinnacle fund, a venture capital fund aimed at minority entrepreneurs. “Mal dragged Eric Von Hendrix (the fund’s first chief executive) kicking and screaming from GE Capital,” Moore said.

Mixon also served on several boards, including those of Sherwin-Williams Co., Lamson & Sessions Co. and Mayfield Heights venture capital firm Primus Venture Partners.

A self-described people person, he gave generous amounts of time and money to charitable and academic causes.

He served as chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation for several years, stepping down in 2010. In 2011 Mixon and his wife donated $3 million to the Clinic’s Cole Eye Institute to establish an endowed chair.

He endowed the Entrepreneurial Studies Chair at the Weatherhead School of Management of Case Western Reserve University with a $1.7 million gift. He also served on the boards of the university and of Cleveland Tomorrow, the economic development group.

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