Where To Saint Peter?

13 Aug

I’ve been taking a break from writing mainly due to a case of AGR blues. As news filters in concerning the automotive glass industry, there is so little to be hopeful about the way the industry is trending from this observer’s perspective that it is simply too painful and pointless to comment on. Say it ain’t so, Joe!

I view blogs on leadership all the time on this very site. They may be useful to motivate employees but since far too many of us are one- to two-man single point outlets, the advice or homilies aren’t as relevant, or better said, universally applicable to the majority of us.

What we need is real industry leadership. That concept is sorely lacking and even more so desperately needed. Is this writer mistaken in his observation that it feels that AGR is lost in some sort of desert and is condemned to wander aimlessly into mediocrity or worse? Where are the captains of our industry who are willing to act, much less even speak out to improve the product, professionalism and craftsmanship instead of trying to please a stock analyst. I haven’t heard one yet but I should be reminded that miracles do occur as evident by the fact the Kansas City Royals have a winning record and should make the baseball playoffs this year.

What constitutes leadership these days? To me, there are far too many of us that have become either sheep or lemmings and meekly accept the downward spiral that has either been imposed upon us or embraced by us.

Is there a comfort that cheaply made products and hacks that install exists in other trades? My dear wife made a water heater purchase decision six years ago based on price. We replaced that water heater three months ago at almost double the cost of the first one, a fact that I had to mention to the owner/operator of the plumbing business who installed the replacement. Not only was the brand of the old heater a generic one, I was shown the poorly soldered copper joints of the first “plumber” and two other major installer no-no’s were pointed out. The venting system was not to code and since California is seismically active, water heaters are physically strapped in place. The installer secured metal straps to the heater by using sheet metal screws into the heater itself. In short, I told my wife, this was an everyday object lesson that I endure as a shop owner about price shopping a craft service. The public is deserving of a poor outcome when it bases it choices purely on price.

This writer is not aware of a single CEO of a major installation or glass manufacturing company that has been consistently outspoken on the major issues that confront this industry. Those being easy entry for practitioners, poor product quality, monopolistic and incestuous practices that exist in the insurance sector and zero accountability for all of the above.

Why would they speak out? Almost every one of those companies directly benefit from the lack of regulation, oversight and let’s not forget consumer ignorance.

Take steering, since Connecticut enacted a law that required a certain third-party administrator (TPA) to give out a name of a secondary glass company as well as its usual presumptive practice of handing the glass replacement over to its in-house self, the company has subpoenaed job acquisition records from glass shops in the state as well as other TPA competitors. What’s next? Subpoena car wash establishments that entice ignorant customers to have a chip repair done after the hot wax? One can be very assured that this company will fight like a cornered grizzly bear in order to keep its monopolistic golden funnel intact because it fears that if even a small diversion occurs, more will follow. However one’s ears will burn as the company will howl about its philosophical attachment to the free market as it seeks to retain its stranglehold on its own.

Since a windshield is just glass does that mean all brands are all of the same quality?

This myth (and this is a myth) is one that is embraced by far too many consumers and promulgated by glass shops selling on price or corporate relationships. In many cases, there is a significant difference in finish quality, visual acuity, weight and most likely product longevity meaning; does it crack easier?

I recently ordered a FW2047 from one of our corporate manufacturer/suppliers. When the part arrived, I realized that I had somehow missed that the lite did not come with rain sensor hardware and since this was for an older Mercedes SL, I was uncomfortable about using a replacement pad. I contacted my only independent distributor and for almost three times the price I brought in a Sekurit windshield. My customer was unhappy about the inevitable price change until he saw the actual differences between the two lites. The cheaper glass was far lighter, had a somewhat rippled top line and the customer noted that the Sekurit was “easier to see through.”

Globalization has brought vast changes to our economy and we in AGR are in the catbird’s seat to view and react to these forces. More competition equals more product. More product means the need to expand markets as prices drop and saturation of existing accounts takes place. Sad to say, the craft side of automotive glass requires little proof of proficiency and low demands for licensing and start-up capitalization. Many see the only way to break into the retail marketplace is to price product cheaper and accept lower profit margins. They are encouraged by customer-hungry distributors which offer them pricing factors equal to many long-time businesses. AGR has created a very vicious and self-defeating circle of destruction by demanding lower prices but accepting lower quality as well. On any given day, I have to deal with scratched or distorted glass, mis-bonded parts, mouldings that do not fit, nozzles that won’t thread properly on tubes, etc. Many of these issues start at the manufacturing level where the same economic pressures exist to squeeze profits out for shareholders, Wall Street analysts and executive bonuses, all at the expense of the product itself.

So, I for one, would like to see some real leadership from those who really matter. Improve our products! Increase prices if need be to do so. If TPAs are the way of the insurance future, ban ownership and management of them by anyone that has a remote interest in glass production or installation. Push for ways to improve the craft of auto glazing and those who practice it. Demand a higher entry bar and back it up with continuing education with proof of proficiency.

A gadfly blogger can only raise issues. CEOs have the ability to effect internal changes and attempt to gain consensus from their peers. The lobbying groups they finance can be used to promote laws that can raise professionalism instead of restricting change or oversight. One’s bottom line may hurt briefly but if the, “Please stay on hold. Your business is important to us” really was important, you would hire more people to answer the phone.


OE OH! (It’s not Oz, Dorothy)

03 Jun

I get calls every week from customers asking for “OE” glass. I try to explain that this is a very specious term with some shops because if one takes it in the strictest definition, the glass is almost always logoed with the auto manufacturer’s name or trademark and must be purchased from an auto dealer’s parts department. Glass from a dealer comes usually at a far higher price than everywhere else.

I then go into an explanation that sometimes an equivalent exists. A glass shop may be able to find a supplier who carries the very same brand of glass minus the manufacturer’s trademark or name, but with the same DOT number which signifies that the aftermarket glass came from the identical source as the dealer purchased one.

This past week I became very aware of how loosely the term “Original Equipment Equivalent” can be used and somewhat abused. I had installs on two different Toyota models that had famous glass brand names as suppliers imprinted in the bug. However when I ordered these easily available brands, I found that the aftermarket windshields had different DOT numbers than the OE ones and the quality of the part was nowhere close to the one I was replacing. Both parts I was replacing had USA origins while the new ones did not. The glass had alterations like the location of the frit and heating elements, along with distinct differences in the shape and application of the underlip molding. In one case, the purchase price of a Chinese made OEE windshield was twice as much as a branded competitor one. My customer paid almost $200 more for something we both thought was an identically made product that came in his vehicle. I believe almost anyone would have been able to detect the contrasts between the OE and the OEE ones, I guess I would like to know why? (Is it just the money, Honey?)

Automotive glass manufacturing has become a worldwide endeavor. While it may not rival the labor saving shopping country hopping antics of shoe manufacturers, AGR is not blind to the benefits of operating in countries that offer cheap labor and minimal environmental and other economic restrictions that may negatively affect the bottom line. As China opened itself up to become a center of manufacturing, its move into AGR instigated a tidal wave of change for our industry. Its flood of product that hit our shores drowned a few domestic glass fabricators, but more importantly, it unraveled the profit structure of both the wholesale and retail sectors of AGR.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that it also affected the craft side as well. As imports rose and inventory increased, distributors needed to find more customers and were able to in an evolving easy-entry industry. But I digress …

I have even discovered quality differences between Chinese-made OE and OEE parts. Volkswagen uses a Chinese glass vendor on some models. I have installed several well-constructed dealer purchased windshields that came from that vendor. However, it is another story when buying that same label in the aftermarket. The cowl retainer that comes bonded with a urethane type substance at the bottom of a VW logoed windshield is merely attached with double sided tape in the aftermarket model. Many times, due to shipping and handling, that retainer may already be pulling away or warped by the time a retailer sees it in their possession. In fact, this writer has a hard time recalling an aftermarket glass manufacturer that does not use double sided tape to secure cowl retainers. I would like to challenge those folks to try to explain to their end users why their cowl may not look the same when using their product, but the way I see it, they are just participants in a race to the bottom of the manure pit.

I understand the economics of this industry. The manufacturers want to make a profit. Distributors want to make a profit. Retailers want to make a profit. Auto manufacturers and the dealer networks make a hefty profit selling OE-branded glass. Insurers want to retain as much premium revenue as possible and the consumer wants to pay as little or nothing at all. All this creates a compression factor all the way down the supply chain.

So, OE logoed glass in many ways has become the “gold standard” to the consumer. I would be in the camp of those who believe that an OE glass is made to a higher standard, not much more, but at least the product is not reversed engineered and the tolerances of fit and finish are tighter than with its aftermarket copycat cousins. How much better is a matter of widely diverse opinion but I have told customers, I think it is usually 10 to 15 percent better. This is despite the fact that becoming OE is usually the end result of being the low bid on a contract. However, when a $1,000 difference exists between a dealer-purchased windshield and a generic-branded one, consumers and their insurers balk and demand cheaper alternatives and solutions to get around paying such high (and unjustified) prices.

I am like every other business owner that is looking for an edge to make a sale. If I can find and install an OEE brand of glass over a generic one, I make it a point to say so. From comments made by callers, many of my competitors may be descended more from Pinocchio than from George Washington because of the missing honesty gene. What is being declared OE or OE Equivalent is so wrong or misleading that some regulatory body would call it outright fraud. But what is as worrisome is that legitimate OE glass producers appear to have differing standards as well as plant locations for the very same glass part. The one being made domestically here for the auto manufacturer appears to be much better constructed than the “not made in the USA” one deemed for the replacement sector.

The mythical land of Oz has nothing on the world of AGRR. While we have our resident munchkins, tin men and scarecrows, it is the air of fantasy and illusion that is more disturbing. I can fully understand why a company competing in the aftermarket glass market makes manufacturing choices to improve their bottom line and their ability to sell their product. What I don’t understand is why substantial differences exist within the same company. A manufacturing line is already set for any one run of windshields. Why not just make X amount more instead of sending off the order to a foreign plant? Wouldn’t the increased set-up and shipping costs from a non-domestic plant offset much of any supposed expense increase coming from a U.S. plant? I, for one, would like to say with conviction that in some cases, I can provide a true OEE product to my customers. Then again, one might have a better chance of ordering online a set of FAA-certified ruby slippers that make traveling to Kansas faster and without TSA inspection.


Feeding the Pig

09 May

I have been laying low the past few months in the composition department. Work has been tough. I came face-to-face with my mortality as an elderly parent and also a former business partner passed since the New Year began. I’ll be honest in saying that auto glass repair has done little to restore an optimistic attitude within me. In fact, when I read upbeat blogs, I wonder how close to the street the writers actually work. How many real customer calls do these people actively receive and quote? The tone and tenor of the marketplace has changed so significantly, at least to me, it has evolved into a noisy bazaar—a bizarre one at that. Almost every day I run into a rude shopper that is so self-absorbed almost to the point of ill-informed righteousness that dealing with the public has become almost a dreaded chore instead of the positive economic event it should be.

I like people. I grew up with the Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends…” book that was a permanent browsing fixture on the back of the family commode. As a proud Empire State native, I had the benefit of learning both urban and rural survival skills. My folks instilled in their three sons a strong sense of morality. “Treat people how you want to be treated” was practically a social law burned into our psyches.

Our culture has changed, in fact, it never has been stagnant. I understand that. In my lifetime, there have been many shifts and currents. My parents deplored the “hippy” freeloading lifestyle of the 60s. Not to worry Mom and Pop, you could accurately declare that the “Wolves of Wall Street” evolved from that same era. What did the “Woodstock Generation” spawn in both values and progeny? Well folks, it’s apparent that not too many people took to heart Marvin Gaye’s question of “What’s Going On?”

Advancements in technology always affect the surrounding culture. Consider in the past 50 years—what devices have changed our way of life? Huge, crude computers have shrunk into wireless devices giving the user so much data and the ability to seek even more. In fact, the word “wireless” was used more frequently years ago to describe an aspect of a women’s undergarment rather than am electronic communication instrument. So it goes.

Have people changed? I certainly have seen a seismic shift in consumer attitudes and the way a shopper does research. Online shopping or e-commerce has altered the landscape for so many retailers. Many in auto glass repair have responded to address the needs of a bathrobe-wearing, website-reading shopper by posting prices. What has that gained us? Are we in a race to the bottom or are just feeding the pig?

More and more, I get calls from people that shop on price alone and even worse, I get the “I want it now!” demand. I leave my cell phone on and will take calls from 6 a.m. through about 9 p.m. Just because they need to be at work 50 miles away at 8 a.m., doesn’t mean that replacing a smashed door glass before then is ever likely for a shop which is contacted at 7:15 a.m. There seems to be a sense of stunned disbelief from a caller that a mobile install for a ‘94 Integra windshield can’t take place within the hour on a Sunday afternoon.

Speaking of a Sunday call, this past one I heard a great new line. Around 7 p.m., I received a call from a woman seeking a price on a door glass for a 2005 Kia Forte. Since it was a fairly limited production vehicle and I had no idea of local part availability or internal cost, I punted, with the statement that I could call her back at 7 a.m. Monday morning with a firm price and, if amenable, a time that day for an install. When pressed for a price, I responded with the statement that I really did not know but oftentimes a door glass of that kind could run $25-plus or minus of $150 for an installed price. I was then hit with this great line, “Well I need it done right now but I am not prepared to pay for something in that price range.” The tone was not of pleading poverty but of assuredness that she had or could find something substantially cheaper. Please, be my guest.

This past Monday I had perhaps the worse contact ever with a consumer. A person broke the rear hatch glass of a 2014 Nissan Versa Note. The part was a dealer item and only available at the regional Nissan warehouse of which they had one in stock. List price was very low—$241. I quoted that along with my labor and was told to order the part for a next-day install. I verified that twice by text. At 7 p.m., I got a text saying to cancel job. I called the guy and was told that he had found someone to do the installation on Craigslist for $35. “What about the special order part?” I asked. The guy agreed to buy it. The next morning I got a text saying to cancel the part as well, as his new vendor can provide one. I called the guy and questioned him knowing that the 2014 Note is a new design and I have in my possession the only new hatch glass within 200 miles. He informs me that since his new vendor installs glass at an auto wreckers that he must be aware of the differences. I rolled my eyes and secretly wished that rats eat him in his sleep.

What also is occurring is the outright dishonesty of job-seeking glass concerns that will do or say anything in order to get an installation or poison the well for others. There is such a lack of ethics and technical ability in this industry that is astounding in its breadth and scope. I cannot tell you the number of times that a caller has told me that a competitor has quoted “an OE windshield” installed for less than $200. The list of lies and misstatements from glass vendors fueled by consumer ignorance derived from online posts and videos has created a maelstrom that drowns out truth and facts. This quagmire affects honest and competent shops negatively. Separating fact from fiction is something most consumers are not good at. They only want to hear favorable outcomes.

What also is distressing is the lack of respect for others that seems to be lost. Take our own AGRR forum. How many examples of snarky vitriol gets posted weekly, if not daily? We shout at, we condemn those we disagree with, usually within the anonymity of the Internet and user name. Courtesy is diminishing as quickly as glaciers recede. Rudeness in both word and deed is increasing. My freeways look more like a movie set for “Fast and Furious” as drivers weave in and out of traffic at breakneck speed. Is auto glass repair just reflecting the current social mindset?

There are times I feel so old. I always hated hearing from my folks phrases like, “When I was your age,” or “The good old days.” I really try to refrain from repeating clichés like that to my younger relatives or associates. Yet, I will always appreciate the honesty of a handshake agreement and a person’s affirmative promise.

We as an industry can use some retro concepts. Provide quality materials at a fair price and install them in a professional manner beneficial to every consumer. Consumers need to learn that you get what you pay for. Obesity is an unhealthy condition even in pigs and I wish this madness could stop. Sad to say, that’s wishful thinking.