The Quiet Conductor
With a low profile, Beth Wolszon
has moved into the inner circle of decision-makers at Safelite.
There is no word more likely to draw a grimace from an auto glass shop owner than Safelite. With a number of programs such as the Repair Medics and Mobile Pros, the Columbus, OH-based company has become the big kid on the auto glass block. It can strike fear just by its size, let alone its actions. While many of these innovative, if not controversial, programs have drawn the ire of a shell-shocked auto glass industry, they have also made Safelite one of the driving forces in the auto glass industry.
Behind these moves is an aggressive management team led by John Barlow. In one of his early moves as president and CEO of Safelite, Barlow recruited Beth A. Wolszon to serve as vice president of marketing and strategic planning. Wolszon had previously worked with Barlow at the automotive parts retailer Western Auto. Prior to joining Western Auto, Wolszon worked as director of strategic planning for Sears Specialty Merchandising, focusing on retail operations. She also has an extensive background in strategic planning and brand marketing with the McKinsey and Company, an international management consulting firm, and The Proctor and Gamble Company.
Though working with a low profile, Wolszon has become an integral part of the Safelite team, ranking as the top woman at the company. Arriving at the company as vice president of marketing and strategic planning in July 1992, she was promoted to senior vice president in January 1998. However, like most labels, titles only tell part of the story. Digging deeper into her biography, one will find that Wolszon has held a large role in many of Safelites ventures, including the marketing of Total Claims Solution, a glass claims process for insurance and fleet companies; the roll-out of Safelites centralized market management plan; and the growth of its call center. In addition, she has input in the overall direction of the company and its many auto glass programs.
Wolszon was kind enough to sit down recently with AGRR to discuss a number of topics, including her background, some of the companys recent moves and many of the perceptions throughout the auto glass industry.
What were your responsibilities at Sears?
I worked within a small group at Sears that focused on acquiring specialty retailers. It was called Sears specialty merchandising. I did not work with the large Sears store. Some of the companies we worked with included Eye Care Centers of America, the optical retail center, and Pinstripe Petites, a womens clothing chain.
What did you gain from your experience there?
I learned a lot about specialty retail and gained a wide range of experience by working closely with a variety of programs and working with a number of businesses on strategic plans. I also worked with the specialty businesses on how to promote to the retail market and to business-to-business customers. Overall, I have had a variety of experiences in specialty retail. I also worked on a lot of projects with Western Auto and John Barlow. As I worked on projects with him, his confidence with me grew and he eventually suggested that I join his team at Western Auto.
Did John Barlow recruit you at Safelite?
John was here for a year before me. Eventually, he persuaded me that this was a great opportunity and a very interesting industry.
What surprised you about the auto glass industry?
There were not that many surprises coming into this industry. In comparison to the industries where I had been, it was much smaller and more fragmented. There was also a good mix of business-to-business and retail marketing. We run auto glass stores and service business customers, including insurance companies and fleets. That variety is something that I enjoy.
What experiences in your previous jobs helped you most at Safelite?
My background is pretty diverse. I am very experienced at coming into a new business and working in that atmosphere. That is comfortable for me. A lot of my experience at Proctor and Gamble was relevant as far as marketing to businesses and consumers and participating in a sales force. A lot of my experience at Sears specialty merchandising, as far as understanding retail operations, has come into play here. The businesses are similar because of the retail operations and marketing.
What are your primary responsibilities at Safelite?
I am responsible for marketing and strategic planning. In addition, I have responsibility for the national call centers. It has been very rewarding watching the call center grow. Brian OMara, our vice president of call center operations, started it with 12 people. Now we have four different call center locations with a fifth one on the way. Brian has been great to work with. We have also been able to give a lot of people opportunities with the call center.
With John Barlows background in the automotive industry many people have accused you of trying to sell glass the same way tires are sold, meaning that you sell as many items as possible without much care given to quality. How would you respond to this?
I think that is totally inaccurate. The investments we have made would not support that. We were one of the first to require our technicians become certified, to adopt quick-cure adhesives, to develop a technical training program and to develop specific policies and procedures for installations. In addition, we have worked with suppliers of adhesive products to test the safety of adhesives. We were also the first major auto glass company to institute drug testing.
How is the leadership environment at Safelite? What happens when there are disagreements?
There is a very open environment here. John Barlow is the clear leader and he is very smart and experienced. He creates an environment where there can be open discussions about various issues. Although there are some disagreements, once we make a decision, we dont look back.
What is the Total Claims Solution?
This is something we have offered since before I joined the company. We offer customers outsourcing claims solutions. We can do the complete claims service process, from end to end, or anything in between. It can be tailored for individual needs. For instance, some companies may just want certain elements of the service, such as electronic claims service.
Our clients are national insurance companies and fleet companies, and we are working with regional fleets, as well. It has grown based on demonstrated success to clients. As there was more success, more companies became interested in pursuing its benefits and there is higher interest in these solutions.
There are a lot of major issues that could be promoted in the auto glass industry, such as cure times and other safety issues. Why did you choose to promote repair, specifically with it being a low-ticket item?
We tried other strategies with mobile service, etc, but we believe repair is
the right thing to do for our customers. The insurance companies want us to save them
money and provide cost savings to consumers. It is the right thing to do for our customers
and we have creatively set ourselves apart from our competitors. In addition to
advertising, we have invested in the Repair Medics and repair
Some would say Safelite has decided to promote repair in an effort to draw in customers for replacement. How would you respond to this?
At Western Auto we would sometimes offer inexpensive oil to draw in customers. However, that is not what we are doing here. This [repair] is not a loss leader. It is not just to draw people in. Quite frankly, we believe it is right to be paid a fair price for a service. We believe that if we do the right thing for the customer, the program will grow.
There have been other rumors that Safelite has begun promoting repair in an effort to begin a per-incident pricing program with insurance companies. Is there any truth to this?
It [per incident pricing] is completely unfounded. Repair Medics does not relate to claim pricing methodologies. That is completely inaccurate.
If you were a regional or a small independent, how would you compete with Safelite?
I have not spent a lot of time thinking about that. However, in a speech he gave at Glass Expo Hawaii 99, John Barlow spoke about being successful in the auto glass business today. He focused on how to satisfy the customer by offering things like repair, mobile service and convenient hours. Those are things that we are currently working on. The consumers want more convenience and more bang for the buck, such as calling us outside of normal business hours and getting safe installations.
It is also important to do what is right for associates, the people you work with. They need to be rewarded when the company succeeds and to have a safe working environment. For instance, we have been looking for things to reduce the amount of back injuries while also making installations safer and easier.
Pricing is also under pressure. We need to find ways to use technology to make us more profitable. It is important to understand and use technology properly, and to be responsive to changing consumer needs and become more cost effective.
Finally, it is necessary to understand our business customers: the insurance companies and the fleets. We need to be in tuned to them, as well as the customer off the street. Progress in these areas makes us successful in earning business and gaining profitability.
After the recent problems with the insurance industry and the American Medical Association, a lot of attention has been focused on the kind of pressure the insurance industry exerts on different markets. How much influence does it exert in the glass industry?
Insurance companies are concerned about their customers. The last thing they want is to lose a customer because of glass. They are leveraging their buying power. Their rates are controlled by state insurance commissions and their competitors, so they need to become more cost effective. They also have new competitors coming in from the banking industry trying to become financial supermarkets. In addition, there is a rate-changing environment, consumers are able to price shop with ease and they want a better claims experience. The insurance companies want to give their customers a pleasant experience and lower claims costs. I dont find they are single-minded. They want to be profitable. We need to help them meet these needs, not try to stop them. They will help those companies that help them meet these needs.
Have you faced gender bias during your career? If so, how have you dealt with it?
It seems people who work in auto stores are men. However, at Pinstripe Petites, women dominated. In general, I think you establish your credibility and capabilities as someone people can work with and respect. At Western Auto, I almost exclusively worked with men. With hiring practices opening up a lot of women are beginning to work their way up into management. I think it is great to get more women in management positions.
How can Safelite compete on a quality level against the small shop owner whose livelihood is repairing glass?
Auto glass is the small shop owners livelihood, however replacing glass is our installers livelihood. It is how they feed their families and educate their children.
Sometimes the worst word of mouth comes from former employees. How would you respond to those who have said your glass is inferior?
We had a time in the early 90s when our glass did not meet the quality of some of the other companies in the industry. However, that has changed. We have invested $20 million in manufacturing operations. We invested in plants and warehouses, and we expanded our distribution channels. We became the first aftermarket plant to meet ISO 9002 certifications. When John took over we made a commitment to making high-quality glass. Now we make very competitive glass and this is a result of our investment into manufacturing.
What do you expect to see out of the auto glass market in the future?
I expect the auto glass market will become more competitive and we will face more demands from the consumer as they ask for more value. That is what the consumer wants. It is going to force the auto glass industry to rely more on technology and do things such as increasing our hours. We are going to have to get better at how we conduct business and what we provide for the consumer.
Leslie Shaver is editor of AGRR magazine. He interviewed Wolszon July 7, 1999 at the Safelite headquarters in Columbus, OH.
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