A Country—and an Industry—in Transition
By Lyle R. Hill
Part Four of a Five Part Series
As those who have been following this series may remember, Part Three of this historical review, based on one person’s memory of the auto glass replacement industry in America, left off at the end of World War II. The title of Part Three was “As a Giant Awakes, An Industry Is Born.” To some this might seem a little dramatic but I think it is quite appropriate. After the war, the U.S.A. would never be the same. Women had entered the workforce while men were overseas and the industrial gains of the country were nothing short of unbelievable. And with the world, and particularly Europe, in need of rebuilding, the industrial and agricultural capacity of the U.S. was in a position to produce anything and everything the rest of the world needed. Jobs were plentiful and wages were growing along with the output of America’s factories and farms. Automobile production soared as every home wanted and could now afford a car. The national highway system expansion under President Dwight Eisenhower soon made it possible to travel with ease to any destination in the country. As more people hit the roads driving more cars than ever before, businesses opened up or expanded to accommodate the needs of the automobile industry. Not unexpectedly, there were soon all kinds of businesses specializing in one segment or another of the automobile repair business. Most were local businesses that handled customers within a given geographic area. Some handled multiple products but many more seemed to settle on one discipline whether it was tires, radiators, transmissions, body repair or auto glass replacements. As the country fell in love with the automobile, dealerships opened and every year the car crazy public saw new models rolling out featuring the latest in style and performance. Cars got bigger, faster and more technically sophisticated every year.
During this period in history many business owners were quite satisfied to expand into a bigger facility or perhaps add a second, maybe even a third, new location across town from where they had maybe been established for many years. Perhaps they had long dreamed of a bigger store or a second shop. But everyone does not dream in the same way. So it didn’t take long for some of the business owners and leaders in America to start dreaming in technicolor. If one location could grow into three or four and still be controllable with the right people and procedures, would it be possible to have 12 or 15, or maybe even 100 locations and operate them successfully? Hasn’t it always seemed that Americans can’t help themselves? They just can’t accept the status quo.
The Era of AGR Expansion
In the auto glass replacement business, the distribution channels were already well-defined. The glass manufacturers that had produced the original glass components for the auto manufacturers were also going to be the same suppliers for replacement glass components. Thus, a re-liable, high quality material supply channel was already established and depending on your shop’s size and location, that side of the production challenge was under control. Equipment needs were minimal and, if the shop owner was willing to pay a reasonable wage, labor was readily available. It has long been claimed by many business professionals that one of the biggest weaknesses or problems in the auto glass replacement industry is its “low barrier of entry.” In other words, it doesn’t cost a great deal of money to get into the auto glass replacement business. While it has long been a very competitive business, it doesn’t take much to “give it a try.”
The more aggressive replacement auto glass shop owners expanded along with the rest of the country. I worked for an auto glass replacement company for 19 years at the start of my career. It was typical of companies that grew with the nation. Starting out with one location in Chicago, the company added locations strategically around the city and suburbs that they had full coverage of the area. Remember too that in those early years, the consumer brought their car into the shop to be serviced. To be in the business you needed a building where vehicles could be brought in-side to be handled. Mobile service had not as yet been developed. The better business managers were able to manage these multiple shop businesses and, in many cases, they expanded outside of their immediate areas of operation. My employer slid across state lines into Indiana and Wisconsin and opened multiple shops in what is typically referred to as “downstate Illinois.”
The Rise of the Regional
This era … let’s say roughly the 25-year period from approximately 1950 – 1975 witnessed the growth of several successful regional auto glass businesses. A few had locations out-side of what might be referred to as their “region” but for the most part, even the biggest operators didn’t get too terribly far from home. The typical auto glass replacement operator relied on salespeople to call primarily on the insurance agents in their territories and while an occasional merger or acquisition occurred, the industry plodded along in a some-what orderly manner.
However, this was about to change.
To be continued …
Lyle Hill has 50 years of experience in and around the auto glass industry. At one time he operated 71 auto glass retail 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.