Volume 9, Issue 3 - June/July 2007

One on One
AGRR’s Exclusive Interview with 
Glass America President David Rohlfing
by Debra Levy

David Rohlfing is a reluctant interviewee. The 54-year-old president of Glass America has never granted an interview before and I can tell by his hesitant tone that he is not sure he wants to do this one. But Rohlfing is passionate about safety in the auto glass business. So passionate, in fact, that Glass America was the first major chain to become AGRSS-registered (Diamond-Triumph has since followed suit) and this fall his company will sponsor Rocky Bleier, the keynote speaker at the AGRSS Conference. So it was with trepidation that he agreed to answer AGRR’s questions during an interview on March 30, 2007.

Q: How did you get your start in the auto glass business?
A: Actually, I will have been in the auto glass industry for 35 years as of March. I started as an auto glass installer trainee at a small company in Florida. I worked there as an installer, store manager and sales rep and ended up taking the business over eventually. I don’t think there is any job I haven’t done. Hopefully that’s a good thing [laughs]. 

Q: Had you started at the shop in Florida right out of high school?
A: No, I went to college for a couple of years and then decided to get into auto glass.

Q: How long were you working there before you took the business over?
A: I got into the business in 1972 and then took it over in 1978, so six years.

Q: That must have been a great time in the industry.
A: It was. We were part of the glass specialty franchise group and Karl Alberti was franchise director. Karl’s a great individual—and was a tremendous marketing guy—and had an office in my building, so we worked together a lot. Ultimately we left the franchise and formed the MAGIC (which stood for Mobile Auto Glass Installation Centers) group. 

Q: That became Safelite eventually, didn’t it?
A: Over a period of time the majority of the group was acquired by Safelite. I sold to them in 1986.

Q: Is that when Ernie Malbin was in charge?
A: Yes, Ernie Malbin is a prince of a guy. I kept in touch with him over the years.

Q: What are the greatest lessons you learned from that era?
A: I learned how NOT to do things. There were also many role models I watched who taught me how not to do things. Everyone in the industry knows those people and I learned a lot by watching them. I also worked with some great role models like Karl Alberti and Steve Gavasto.

Q: Did you work for Safelite after the sale?
A: Yes, I stayed at Safelite and was responsible for Florida. The biggest difficulty in being acquired in is trying to figure out how an entrepreneur can fit into a corporate environment and function effectively there. I had difficulties. I’d always ask, “Why are they doing it that way?” I had difficulties initially at Safelite trying to fit in. So I was going through a struggle.

Then Forstmann Little acquired the company and Dick Krant convinced me to stay. He gave me the chance to help with acquisitions, which I really enjoyed. After we bought a company, I would “assimilate it” for 90 days, then a regional manager could take over ... That was a great experience and I had a lot of fun. I met some great people ... Larry Mills ... Alan Epley … Bill Lewis … Tee Cambre. I also had the opportunity to do a big acquisition of a company called Speedy Auto Glass during that time. Eventually, I ran the New England region. I enjoyed the cast of characters and all those deals. I worked there until 1989. 

Q: Isn’t that about when the guy from The Limited came in?
A: Yes. When Bob Morosky came there, we tangled. He didn’t stay too long. I quit one day; Tee quit the next. We were all working for Tom Feeney and we’d had it. Three of the seven regional vice presidents quit within 30 days. They killed us with change. Not all change is good. Change is good if you can grow through it. 

Q: What did you do next?
A: After I left Safelite I interviewed with Harmon and U.S. Auto Glass. I spoke with Larry Anderson [editor’s note—then of Harmon] and Eddie Cheskis [then of US Auto Glass] and then spoke with Paul Markiles at Windshields America. That was the best opportunity for me. At the time, they were headquartered in Van Nuys, Calif. I became their executive vice president of operations. It was the most fun that I have had so far at a job.

I joined Windshields America in 1989-90 and I met a lot of people in the industry I hadn’t known before … Alan Resnick, to name one. I became COO in May 1992 and CEO in September 1992. And then, we went on an acquisition tear. We had about 270 stores.

Q: You know, what I always loved about Windshields America was its name. It’s a great name.
A: A great name, and the people made it a great company. 

Q: Were you there through the merger with Globe/US Auto Glass?
A: In September of 1995 we were at an industry meeting and we met with Bill Tortorello [then of Globe Glass/U.S. Auto Glass] and that began the discussions toward a merger. It was one of those “best of both worlds” scenarios. We had locations. U.S. Auto Glass had locations and the network. Both entities combined (there was some overlap but not too much) could drive the business.

Q: So how come it didn’t work so well?
A: I wouldn’t comment on that on the record. Let’s just say I left the U.S. auto glass industry in February 1996 and went to work for John Mason in a worldwide capacity.

Q: John Mason of Belron?
A: Yes.Q: A real industry visionary …A: Absolutely. I loved working for him. 

Q: What was your role with Belron?
A: I had a great time doing their worldwide new market entry strategy and acquisitions. I looked at Asian markets and spent a lot of time in Asia, the Philippines and South America. Belron also has an excellent business in Brazil. I did the Lebeau deal and the Standard Auto Glass in Canada.

But I was living on a plane. I left not longer after when John Mason did in 2000 ... 2001.

Q: Then what did you do?
A: Well, nothing for a while. I didn’t do anything. I lived in Chicago and I took care of my mom. I wasn’t gainfully employed and wasn’t trying to be, and that actually felt good. I was looking at a lot of things … a lot of deals before Glass America came along.

Q: So how did the purchase of Glass America come about? BP Capital owned it at the time, didn’t they?
A: Alan [Resnick] called me in 2003 and put me together with BP. By that time, Glass America had separated and sold off its flat glass business and owned only the auto glass business. We started talking in July-August. Alan thought it might be a great opportunity and worked with me to put the deal together. 

Q: Are you the sole owner?
A: Not the sole owner, no. There are three equity companies behind us.

Q: Are you still happy with your decision to do the deal?
A: Very happy with it. I knew many of the people who were part of Glass America. We also added a number of people. Today, there are almost 100 stores. The vast majority of the people working in them are people I already knew. They used to work for us at Windshields America.

Q: You’ve made some acquisitions since then?
A: Yes. We’ve done two fairly good-sized deals since then (Auto Glass Service and Globe Amerada). Again, the nice thing was that the people there used to work for me. Assimilation was very easy because we already knew the people. Jeff Lloyd, Denny Leahey, Rob Monaghan and Nate Edwards are all great people to work with. This is a people business, plain and simple.

Q: I had heard rumors that you were downsizing in some areas and closing stores, though.
A: That’s not really accurate. We’ve closed some poor performing stores like Joliet [Illinois]. We had gotten up to 93 stores, now we have 86. You have to remember that there is occasionally some overlap with existing locations when we make a new acquisition and we can only keep one location.

Q: Glass America has been an AGRSS-registered company almost since the program was offered. How do you feel about AGRSS?
A: I am so thrilled about AGRSS. It’s the right thing for our industry. We have to raise the level of the standards in the industry and AGRSS is the way to do this. Having a validation function will be the next logical step. We are very supportive of AGRSS for many reasons, including its universality. If we can get everyone—independents, chains, everyone—together to raise the overall standards in the industry, it increases safety and it enhances how the industry is viewed by its customers. We visit a lot of stores around the country, and there’s nothing like AGRSS.

AGRSS registration is absolutely helpful. We use it to market. Customers understand it and respond to it. All our sales reps talk about AGRSS and the importance of safe installations. They talk to every customer about it—it doesn’t matter the type of customer you have.

Q: One of your larger competitors that hasn’t become AGRSS-registered tells its customers that it doesn’t need to, it’s doing work better than being AGRSS-registered. Do you think that argument for not being registered is valid?
A: I think it’s something all companies are going to have to deal with sooner or later. Right now, we have SIKA doing our internal audit. Nothing beats having someone else look over your shoulder. We are proud we meet and exceed AGRSS Standards and proud to be an AGRSS-registered company.

Q: I want to switch to the future for a moment. Eventually, I would expect you will sell Glass America …
A: [laughs] Eventually is a long way off …

Q: Eventually … but for now you are still buying companies. So as a seller when do you sell and as a buyer when do you want to buy?
A: Ah, when is the opportune time to sell or buy? Good question. We are continuing our growth and there are a number of markets [in which] we would like to do acquisitions, even in our existing markets. I’m still bullish on the auto glass industry. There are tremendous opportunities out there. Glass America is still looking to grow.

Q: What advice would you have for independent auto glass companies out there?
A: Controlling costs is the most important thing you can do. You want to get customers in your door. You’ve got to market yourself locally. People have had great success with radio in smaller markets. You’ve got to get and keep customers. That, and reduced costs, are the key.

Q: But so many smaller companies feel that the insurance companies and their administrators control the consumer.
A: Consumer choice isn’t going away. You have to get to that consumer. And safety … safety is important to everyone.

Q: Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
A: I am happy to be in the auto glass industry today. One of the main reasons I say that is because I very much enjoy working every day with people at Glass America. They are, in my view, the best—every company should feel that way—but I really do. The people make it fun. We try to run the business the best that we can run it. We are very entrepreneurial. My phone doesn’t ring too often with complaints. Find the best people, then keep them, provide good benefits, treat them right and allow them to grow as individuals. I think we are doing this right. It’s people who let us do more acquisitions and who have allowed us to grow. I am still having a lot of fun even in an unquestionably difficult environment and look forward to whatever comes our way. There are still ways to make money out there.

Q: Thank you.
A: Glad it’s over. 

Debra Levy is the publisher of AGRR magazine.

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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.