By Lyle R. Hill
Part Two of a Five Part Series
Let me begin this article by thanking you for the feedback I received on the last article which dealt with the origin of mo-bile auto glass installations. The comments that came by phone and e-mail, were as varied as they were interesting. A few thanked me for shedding some light on the subject. A couple of old timers affirmed my story and naturally, there were some who told me I was completely wrong. As a writer, the one thing you want most is to get a response from what you have to say, so I see all responses as positives. So with this in mind, we plod on.
Nearly 30 years ago, in the fall of 1991, an event known as the “Auto Glass Conference” took place in Phoenix, Arizona. These annual gatherings were coordinated and sponsored by the National Glass Association in those days. This was the first time the conference was held in Phoenix and it would return there in 1994 and again in 2003. An article that appeared in AGRR magazine in November of 2003 reported on the most recent conference and the title‘Prickly Pairs’ was used, for indeed, it seemed that every auto glass related meeting held in Phoenix be-came a prickly, contentious one. For the moment, we’ll deal with the 1991 gathering. We’ll touch on the others a little later on.
I did not attend the ’91 conference. I was not a player as much as I was an observer of the auto glass trade in those days. As a member of the board of directors at Globe Glass & Mirror, headquartered in Chicago, I had some idea of what was going to occur at the conference and I would have loved to have attend-ed. But scheduling and workload, combined with my non-auto glass involvement at the time, prevent-ed my attendance. In those days, I was a bit envious of the people that worked in the auto glass side of the business. The margins in auto glass were much better than in the fl at glass segment and the whole order and fulfillment process was less complicated and easier to control. When I was once offered an opportunity to take the manager’s position of the Globe Glass Glen Ellyn, Ill., branch, I accepted it immediately. This location, in Chicago’s far western suburbs, did auto and fl at glass work and was in a growing area. I spent the next two evenings looking at apartments in the area where I could relocate to be closer to the shop that I just couldn’t wait to take over. Unfortunately, for me, the move was later overruled and if my memory is correct, a young and very talented guy by the name of Greg Pierce ended up with the job. I told myself ‘it was just not my turn … yet.’
Quoting from the above referenced article … “The first Nation-al Auto Glass Conference ever held in Phoenix nearly erupted into a fist fight in 1991 when Joe Kellman, then president of Globe Glass and Mirror, told the mostly independent group that they needed to work harder than ever to survive. Kellman was just about booed out of the room when he said that “an insurance- driven industry was well on its way to be-coming a reality.”
On the surface, at least as it was reported in this article, it seems like the reaction to Kellman’s comments might have been a little too extreme. But there was much more to this story and it represented a tsunami type event for the auto glass industry. In essence, if not in very specific terms, what Kellman was saying was that the rules of engagement in the auto glass replacement world were changing. The days of promoting yourself by “romancing” work from local insurance agents were coming to an abrupt end. In the immediate future, the insurance companies at the corporate level would negotiate prices and terms on a national basis. The agent you had been taking to ball games and buying turkeys for at Thanksgiving was slowly, but surely, going to become less important to your business. In Kellman’s own words … “being efficient isn’t going to be good enough. You’re going to have to become super-efficient.”
There were other underlying short and long term implications from what Kellman had said. And most of the participants got it. For decades, family-owned glass shops that were primarily local with a few regional players, had made a good living servicing the insurance agents in their area. The fl at glass side of the industry was somewhat similar in most respects.
Kellman had a reputation for being a bit of an outlier because of his aggressive pursuit of growth. He was always expanding and, though headquartered in Chicago, he had shops throughout the Midwest and had started acquiring shops in other parts of the country. I had the opportunity of working for him for 19 incredible years.
Joe Kellman had dropped out of high school to help run the family business when his father passed away. In spite of never having finished high school, Kellman was the sharpest business mind I ever encountered. He was tough–some called him ruthless. He was demanding, but fair. He didn’t want to hear excuses and preached a concept that he referred to as ‘brutal honesty.’ Tell the truth at whatever the cost. I will tell you from firsthand experience that you did not want to be his enemy. I enjoyed my time with Kellman. I learned a great deal from him and while we had some incredible disagreements over the years, I came to respect him a great deal. He was focused and deter-mined to build his business into the largest auto glass replacement business in North America. A s the group in Phoenix would learn, the brilliant moves he had made would soon impact everyone in the industry in one way or another. Joe Kellman and his team at what was now known as the US Auto Glass Network was up and running on Chicago’s near Northside and what he was preaching has an attentive congregation … the big auto insurers of North America.
Lyle Hill has more than 42 years of experience in and around the auto glass industry. At one time he operated 71 auto glass re-tail shops and a wholesale auto glass distribution business. He is currently the managing director of Glass.com®, an information portal and job generation company for auto glass businesses.
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