BRIDGING THE GAP
Chinese Glass Catches Up
by Les Shaver
When Tim Conklin, owner and president of Wholesale Glass Distributors in Greenville, S.C., started selling glass made in China to local auto glass shops in the mid 1990s, even at significantly less than what American glass cost, he had a tough sell.
“They didn’t want Chinese glass,” Conklin said. But cold, hard economic realities can make strange bedfellows. And, that’s exactly what happened with Chinese glass. Suddenly, glass shops in the red states were buying windshields from Red China. “As the insurance industry kept pressuring and pressuring and pressuring prices, their [the glass shops’] resolve to buy only American-made glass weakened,” Conklin explained. “We went from selling no Chinese glass to half of our aftermarket glass being Chinese.”
Chinese glass didn’t just take hold in South Carolina, however; it became a factor all over the country. And American manufacturers took notice. Three of them, Owatonna, Minn.-based Viracon, Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc. and Columbus, Ohio-based Safelite Glass Corp. challenged the Chinese manufacturers before the U.S. International Trade Commission, accusing them of dumping (see AGRR, May/June 2001). But the situation continued to evolve. The American manufacturers also dropped prices on their glass and PPG (which refused to comment for this article but did issue a statement on imported glass, see page 17) even has a Chinese manufacturer producing glass for it. (Pilkington has a joint venture in China, Shanghai Yaohua Pilkington Auto Glass Co., Ltd. which sells product into the United States.)
Now, more than four years after all the controversy started, some glass with the logo of American manufacturers also comes with a “Made in China” stamp on it. And most everyone interviewed for this article seems to agree that the quality of glass produced in China has improved, though there is some debate about how much. And the price spread between glass produced in China and America is nowhere near as wide as it was four years ago.
Like Conklin’s customers, Garry Dunnegan, owner of Wichita-based NorthStar Automotive Glass, a distributor of both Chinese and American glass, was a buy-American guy. But difficulty purchasing glass from the major manufacturers led him to the Pacific Rim. There he helped one large Chinese manufacturer (contractual obligations limit him from saying which one) grow in the United States.
“At first, we worked through packaging and quality control issues with them,” he said. “They’ve done a tremendous job in putting together a high quality manufacturing facility.”
Conklin tells a similar story. He says the Chinese manufacturers have the same production technology as their American competition and, more importantly, they’ve displayed a steadfast commitment to improve. The difference between the good ones and bad ones here and there: their listening skills and attitude.
“It doesn’t have so much to do with their equipment because they’re all using state-of-the-art equipment,” he said. “It has to do with how understanding they are and how sensitive they are to the requirements of customers. When you take something to them, some will say ‘I see what you mean and while I’m not happy I have to make these changes and it will cost us a lot of money, I will do it anyway.’ The others will say, ‘We’ve sold thousands of those windshields and you just need to make it work.’”
Bobby Kent, vice president of Bartelstone Glass, a distributor in Belleville, N.J., also thinks the quality of Chinese glass has improved, but he won’t say every company has reached American standards yet. Like many distributors, he will only vouch for the quality of glass he sells.
“Obviously there are differences and everybody’s going to be a little different,” he said. “But if you’re buying from the two major factories [Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co. Ltd. and Xinyi Automotive Glass Co. Ltd.], then the quality is not an issue.”
Steven Tso, vice president and general manager of Greenville Glass Industries Inc. in Greenville, S.C., the American sales agent for Fuyao, agrees. “Some companies [in China] do good quality glass and some don’t.”
Keith Seaman, vice president and owner of Independent Glass Distributors in Jacksonville, Fla., sells Fuyao and says it’s comparable with the glass from American manufacturers. “I’ll have as many PPG or Pilkington complaints about the fit problems as I do with FYG,” he said.
Dealers may paint a more accurate picture of imported glass, but even that’s murky. Some, like Bob Hittenberger, owner of Best Glass in Phoenix, and Jack Braden, owner of Jack’s Auto Glass in Redding and Allentown, Pa., will only install glass from companies outside the U.S. sparingly. Braden sees problems with the frits coming off the glass and distortion from the vinyl interlayer being stretched too far or stretched improperly.
Scott Owens, owner of Excel Auto Glass in Lake Katrine, N.Y., will install glass from overseas, but he takes precautions by dry fitting the glass and carefully checking each batch for any irregularities. His most common issues: problems with the moulding assemblies and bends of glass. “There’s good quality glass from China,” he said. “But if we see any waves, distortion or inconsistent frit bands, we’ll send it back.”
While dealers like Braden and Owens still have an occasional issue, they also say the difference between American and Chinese glass isn’t what it used to be. Advances in production in China have narrowed part of the gap. The other factor in the diminishing quality gap: Declines by American manufacturers.
It seems as if any retailer you talk to has a pet peeve with an American-made windshield. For Owens, it’s PPG’s 129 windshield, which he says has dimples and clamp marks.
Braden sees problems with the manufacturer’s 1123 and 1124 mouldings, which he says don’t match the mouldings along the gutter on the vehicle. This forces his installers to add more moulding.
The defects in certain types of glass and mouldings make it difficult for large American manufacturers to differentiate their glass as being better than what’s produced outside the U.S., said distributors and dealers interviewed for this article.
“They may try to sell that [glass superiority] to the general public, but they can’t sell it to the professional in the industry,” Braden said. “They’re living in a dream world if they think they can.”
And, even if there weren’t these problems, it would be difficult for American manufacturers to tout the superior quality of their glass over Chinese brands as they now manufacture glass in the People’s Republic.
“I would guess that because PPG and Pilkington have glass made over there now, that would be an endorsement that the quality is now the same as our glass here,” Kent said.
For this article, PPG did issue this statement on foreign glass: Because we are committed to being as competitive as we can be in North America, we have long sold PPG glass parts manufactured by others, whether these third parties are located in China or elsewhere.
What’s important is that these parts are manufactured to our rigid specifications. Customers expect nothing less than high quality from glass products containing the PPG logo.
But according to Conklin he will still hear a sales representative for U.S. companies say the company’s glass is better than its Chinese competitors. Usually, the pitch is: By working with our company, the Chinese manufacturer’s glass is made to the American manufacturer’s standards. “They’re basically saying that if you buy a Chinese windshield with a Chinese logo, it’s made more sloppily and poorly,” Conklin said.
But some glass manufacturers don’t market their products that way. Dan Wilson, president and CEO of Safelite, says his company doesn’t target other manufacturers in its marketing.
“We promote our quality standards and processes, but not relative to other providers,” he said in a written statement to AGRR. “We can’t speak for other manufacturers.”
When Conklin’s glass retailers started to buy Chinese glass, the large American manufacturers didn’t respond for a few years. But that changed. “PPG and Pilkington have responded pretty well the past couple of years to where their pricing is now within 10 percent on their aftermarket stuff,” he said.
Conklin isn’t alone in this observation. “At one time, FYG [Fuyao] glass was much cheaper, but I see it becoming more level now,” Seaman said. “As FYG glass has become more accepted in the field, I don’t see the disparity I once did.”
In the Northeast, Kent sees prices moving closer together, but he doesn’t see an overt movement by American manufacturers to match the prices of Chinese manufacturers. Instead, he says prices are determined on a case-by-case basis.
“If domestic manufacturers aren’t selling a part, they will lower their price and get extremely close or right on the nose with the overseas people,” he said. “It depends on the manufacturer—what they need to move, what their inventory looks like, what their state of mind is and whatever makes them tick.”
Made in America?
With prices closer together than ever and quality from the major Chinese manufacturers near that of their American counterparts, many glass shops have to wonder: Does the “Made in America” label matter with glass anymore?
Dunnegan doesn’t know. “You’d like to think that “Made in America” still means something, but I don’t think it’s worth what it was five years ago [in auto glass],” he said. “I think people have gotten so tired of trying to determine what it means. It used to mean that you buy PPG, Carlite and LOF. But I don’t know where you can order glass made in America, other than Viracon or perhaps Guardian. If all things were equal, you could say American glass was better. But there are so many variables now that it’s tough to say that.”
While retailers, distributors and manufacturers can debate the quality of glass, the main question comes down to what retailers sell their customers and insurance companies. If it’s OE glass, made in America still means something. If not, it really doesn’t.
“If auto glass dealers are promoting that they only use original equipment, then it makes a difference,” Kent said. “But, in general, there’s a lot less of those than ones who are competing on pure price alone, where anything goes.”
Les Shaver is a contributing editor to AGRR.
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