Volume 9, Issue 6 - November/December 2007

Chance Encounters
Auto Glass Maverick Lived and Died in the Fast Lane
by Les Shaver

As a former Mrs. America, Jill Scott has been wooed by a lot of men in her life. Men of all kinds have pursued the green-eyed blonde, but the one who swept her off her feet was an auto glass shop owner. 

As both competitors and friends will tell you, Rick Chance wasn’t just any auto glass shop owner. Scott, who met Chance through a former Miss Arizona, agrees. Six weeks after she met the charismatic owner of Empire Glass in Phoenix, she wed him.

“When I first met him, I thought he was just amazing,” Scott says. “He was very charismatic and so kind and gentle. I thought he was incredible. That’s why I married him in six weeks. Both before and after I met Rick, I was dating some extraordinary men. But there was something about Rick that stood above all the rest.”

Chance’s friends also held him in equally high regard. “He was bigger than life,” says Dennis L. Hall, Chance’s friend who served as both his attorney and an attorney for the Arizona Auto Glass Association (AAGA) when Chance was involved with it. “He would walk into the room and draw everybody’s attention. He had kind of a John Wayne image. That’s what he was like. He would come in and dominate a room. People wanted to know him.”

To people in seven markets in the Western U.S., the 6’2” Chance became a household name. He pushed Empire Glass, a company he started as a one-man operation in 1982, to more than $13 million in revenue, according to CourtTV. Chance’s aggressive marketing tactics helped him earn $2.1 million in 2001. At the time of his death, he was even considering taking his company public. 

But Chance, the same man who inspired so much awe among his friends, was despised by many auto glass shops and insurers. That’s one of the many paradoxes that was Rick Chance. In an industry where he was regarded as a pariah by small shop owners, he also championed the little guy. His personal life was even more sordid. On one hand, Scott said her ex-husband was an ordained minister. On the other hand, press reports painted him as a womanizer who cavorted with prostitutes and strippers. 

His brilliance helped make him a millionaire in auto glass—an industry where turning any profit can be a challenge. Conversely, he was naive enough to take millions of dollars of jewelry into a hotel room where he was to meet up with a stripper (though some claim Chance didn’t know she was a stripper). That mistake happened to be his last. Chance entered a Best Western Hotel room in Tempe, Az., with a million dollars in jewelry in his briefcase and an Asian stripper named Brandi Hungerford at his side on the night of August 8, 2002. He never left. 

Humble Beginnings
Rick Chance had lived in the Phoenix area his whole life. He was born in Mesa, but grew up on a farm in Casa Grande, Az. Chance’s desire to throw himself head-first in about every activity he could find came to the forefront in high school. In addition to lettering in football, basketball, and track at Maricopa High School, he also edited the student newspaper, according to The Arizona Republic.

“Rick was like the underdog who makes it big,” Scott says. 

Scott says her ex-husband’s drive was borne out of a childhood disability. He lost his eye at a young age. “He had one glass eye,” Scott says. “From childhood on, he was always ridiculed and made fun of. By the time he was in high school, he just tried to make something more for himself.”

He worked a number of odd jobs after school, before finding the auto glass industry. In the 1980s, he took a job as an installer for M&M Auto Glass in Phoenix, according to The Arizona Republic (M&M wouldn’t returns calls to confirm that Chance worked there). The paper also reported that after a year his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and he went off to start his company—Empire Glass.

“He started working for someone else and installing auto glass,” Hall says. 

“He understood the business and decided to do it as an entrepreneur. He was a self-made guy.”

Chance started Empire as a one-man operation. But his marketing prowess and his desire for attention soon converged. 

“I can remember when he got started and there would be flyers on windshields in parking lots,” says Gary Gifford, who used to run a Phoenix-based auto glass chain. “He used to subcontract his work to people.”

Sitting in his family’s restaurant one night, Chance hatched an idea, according to The Arizona Republic. He would give every person who came in for windshield work a free meal. In return for the meal, Chance would provide the restaurant with publicity through his advertisements. 

Chance got business, the restaurant got publicity and the consumer got food.

“He offered restaurants a cross trade where they would get advertisements at $5,000 a week and, in return, they’d give 12 free dinners. It was a great cross trade,” Scott says.

Even his competitors appreciated his marketing efforts. “You had to respect him for his marketing efforts,” says Bob Hittenberger, owner of Best Glass in Phoenix and one of Chance’s associates on the AAGA. 

But Chance certainly wasn’t the only glass shop owner to offer free meals. There was something more that made him successful and took him into households throughout the West. It was charisma—along with a catchy jingle—“When you think glass, think Empire.”

“That tagline was effective,” Hittenberger says. “He was effective.”

Hall saw this marketing firsthand as his attorney. “He took a lot of risks and helped put himself forward on television to become a local icon,” Hall says. “The phrase, ‘When you think glass, think Empire.’ That was his tagline. You can still say that to people here today [and they’ll remember it]. He really built the name of Empire and built the concept of associating glass sales by giving something of value with it.”

Chance’s all-out marketing assault came out at a pivotal time in the auto glass industry. The old way of doing business by playing golf and dropping off sports tickets for insurance agents was going the way of the dinosaur. In its place would be a new model. Insurers would pull the agents out of the equation and have their customers go directly to a call center, which sent them to a glass shop. 

“If you’re not going to invest in agent relationships—most of them try to do a lunch, a pad or pen for insurance agents—why not give it to the consumer?” Gifford says. “It’s hard to argue with that.”

Hittenberger also saw Chance as a trailblazer. “He was the first one to go in a big way after the end user,” Hittenberger says. “Up until Empire Glass, most everybody was satisfied to work through the insurance industry, marketing to sales representatives and going through referrals. That’s just how business was done.” 

This evolution made the timing perfect for Chance’s bold personality and all-out marketing assault. “Rick said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do business that way. I’m going after the end consumer,’” Hittenberger says. “’They’re the ones that are controlling this and those are the ones I need to market to.’ He was incredibly successful at it.” 

That success spawned imitators, but no one else could really compete with Chance. “There was art in the marketing,” Hall says. “It’s not as simple as people think. Other people tried to mimic it, but they really couldn’t. He did a good job of building a company that sold a lot of glass.”

Industry Dissension
When a business is as profitable as Chance’s Empire Glass, it often inspires respect and awe for its competitors. But along with that comes jealousy. Chance’s controversial business method and ego spawned both. Some of it was earned and some of it wasn’t.

“His competitors didn’t like him,” Hittenberger says. “Rick really was a frontrunner. A lot of people admire him for that, but didn’t care for the competition. He was draining a lot of business away.”

Then there was the money. Many auto glass shops have trouble even staying in business. But the industry made Chance a millionaire. Both Hittenberger and Gifford say it wasn’t the fact that Chance was successful that made him a pariah; it was the way he made money.

“Rick did a lot business and made a lot of money,” Hittenberger says. “He did it very differently than most companies did. Rick had a totally different approach. He made his money in different ways. He overcharged. It put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.”

The prices Chance charged led to some animosity among his peers in the industry. “He was able to get more money for the same thing that I was, but I cultivated my relationships with the agents and tried to work that way,” Gifford says. Scott says Chance had to charge more to stay in business. “You’re billing the insurance companies based on what your overhead is,” Scott says. “With us, we had a huge overhead.”

Glass shop owners also questioned the quality of Chance’s work. The Arizona Better Business Bureau (BBB) backs these contentions and says the company had an unsatisfactory record answering complaints. Records show that the company answered problems with contract issues, but ignored complaints about sales practice issues, guarantee or warranty issues and product issues.

“He was not known for quality,” Hittenberger says. “He was not known for very good service.”

Scott didn’t dispute that Chance had problems with his customers. “Anytime you do volume with anything, you’re going to have customers complain,” she says. “Nobody ever calls when they’re happy. You will have people call when they’re upset. They’re going to have issues that need to be fixed.”

Sometimes, Chance would take these complaints seriously. Other times, he didn’t really care, according to Scott. “A lot of times he was not interested in the least about what was happening at Empire Glass,” she says. “Other times, they would complain and it would become a big deal to him. It would depend on what mood he was in.”

So how does a guy with this sort of reputation keep pulling customers in? Hittenberger reasons that Chance could get by with this because of Phoenix’s population boom. “During the time he was growing a great deal, Phoenix was growing by leaps and bounds,” Hittenberger says. “It didn’t matter how many unhappy customers he had, he had just as many coming in through his advertising with his free dinners.”

Some of these unhappy customers were insurers. Chance didn’t just bill off-the-street customers at higher rates than his competitors. He also billed insurers at higher rates. Scott says he billed State Farm at 75 percent over invoice, for instance. That left many bad feelings with insurers. “The insurance companies were frustrated and angry at that time,” Scott says. “I don’t think they got how he did the cross promotion. The companies didn’t want to pay that much.” Eventually, Gifford contends Chance’s methods hurt the whole industry. 

“Some of us feel that his tactics and the way he billed the insurance companies and the things he did did more to open the eyes of the insurance companies [than anything else],” he says. “When they sat there and saw we were getting billed $600, $700 and $800 and they were waiving $100, they thought there must be a lot of money in glass. He, more than anyone, got the insurance carriers to start looking at things and creating lists of approved vendors. He was the big reason why that started.”

But Chance was a man of paradoxes in his business life as much as his personal life. As much as he irritated his competitors, he also tried to unite them (of course, this also united them against his rival the insurers). He was the driving force to start the AAGA in 2001, according to Hall. Hittenberger served with him. “Rick felt like it was important to have an association and that we have a voice with the insurance companies,” he says.

Unfortunately, for once, the charismatic Chance was in the background. The man who went on television offering free steaks and reciting catchy jingles had to stay in the shadows for the organization to make progress.

“He realized he couldn’t be the front man because of his reputation and because a lot of people didn’t like him in the insurance industry,” Hittenberger says. “He helped start the association and he served on the board, but he was invisible. He didn’t want a high profile because insurance carriers didn’t like him.”

He also realized his reputation may hurt the association in other ways. “A lot of people were there to take potshots at him,” Hittenberger says. “He wanted to help unify the industry. When people found out he was involved, they automatically thought, ‘Wow, this isn’t a reputable thing.’ But his ideas were good and he had a lot of passion for what he did and whatever he was doing at the moment.”

High-Stakes Game
Chance’s reputation preceded him beyond the auto glass industry. It’s not hard to see how that could happen with televisions beaming him into the living room of millions of people. But there are a lot of mattress store owners and used-car salesmen who never parlayed their success into marrying a former Mrs. America and the millions Chance made. In fact, Chance’s controversial persona in the glass industry was nothing compared to his real-life persona. He went through three marriages—with Scott being the last. Although his romantic relationships weren’t long-term, he remained loyal to both his family and childhood friends. Scott says his mother and family played a large role in the business. So did many of his childhood friends. Much like a professional athlete keeps an entourage, so did Chance. He kept many of these childhood friends on his payroll, according to Scott.

At the same time, Scott says Chance was prone to rash decisions. For instance, she says he once decided to run for governor, even though he had no political experience.

“He had his highs and his lows and he didn’t always make the best decisions,” Scott says. “For two weeks, he wanted to be the governor. He was calling people and doing everything to set himself up to run for governor. Then, just like that, it dropped. He was no longer interested.”

Chance’s friends weren’t the only people he supported, according to The Arizona Republic. The paper quoted a number of religious leaders saying Empire Glass’ owner donated thousands to their causes (Some of these religious leaders wouldn’t return calls from AGRR.) Scott disputes this, but Hall doesn’t.

“He was a generous philanthropist,” Hall says. “He used to spend a lot of time going to Mexico and working with people. He gave a lot of money down there to people and to the people in town here.”

Chance’s religious beliefs drove this behavior, according to Hall. Scott saw this as well. “Rick was very spiritual and he was an ordained minister,” she says. “He was the most spiritual guy I ever met. He was generous and he had a heart.”

Sandwiched in these good deeds were rocky relationships with women. Six months after his first marriage to Norie Anne Rose in 1979, she filed for divorce, according to The Arizona Republic. Although Rose dropped her initial proceedings, she filed for divorce in 1981.

When Chance was married to his second wife, Christine Gay Pyland (with whom he had two children who eventually worked at Empire), he met a woman at a restaurant in Scottsdale who turned out to be a prostitute, according to The Arizona Republic. Later, the woman drugged the millionaire and stole his jewelry. This embarrassment forced Pyland to take the two kids and move to Denver, according to the paper.

Chance’s actions also made the rounds in the glass industry rumor mill. “There were a lot of rumors floating around,” Hittenberger says. “Everyone had heard the stories and seen the news clips and talked to people who worked for him.”

In 1996, Chance married Scott in a Valentine’s Day wedding that was broadcast live on Good Morning America. After two annulment attempts, the couple finally divorced in 1999. The Arizona Republic reports that Chance said Scott hid things from him, including getting several plastic surgeries and contracting to appear in adult films. (The paper also reported that Scott accused Chance of being a “religious kook,” while he accused her of being after his money.)

The final woman in Chance’s life was, of course, Hungerford, an exotic dancer, who was accompanied by her boyfriend, Robert Lemke. In court documents, Hittenberger said they met through a classified ad. Chance always had an interest in jewelry and had begun selling it.

“It was a complete scam,” Hall says. “She represented herself to Rick as a student. They [Hungerford and Lemke] were targeting Rick. They had found out that he sold jewelry. They were targeting him to rob him. They had Brandy befriend Rick for that purpose. She managed to make contact with Rick and make him feel like she was interested in a relationship with him.”

Hall claims his friend never knew Chance was a stripper, but Scott is wary of this. Finally, on the night of Thursday, August 8, in Room 317 of the Best Western Inn in Tempe, the duo accomplished their goal. Chance went to the hotel room with Hungerford and a million dollars worth of jewelry. Not long after they arrived, Lemke arrived at the hotel in a ski mask, stole the jewelry and shot Chance, according to The Arizona Republic. Hungerford said she didn’t know her boyfriend, an exotic dancer known as Dakota, was planning to kill Chance.

Scott attributes Chance’s decision to go to the hotel to the rash decision-making he had displayed throughout his life. “Anyone can look at that whole situation and think it’s just not logical;” she says. “Why would someone who is a multimillionaire bring that jewelry to a stripper in a hotel to sell just because you have a buyer? It’s not logical.”

Police eventually found Lemke and Hungerford in Tacoma on August 14, 2002. They had planned to sell the jewelry. The two were convicted but weren’t sentenced until earlier this year. Hungerford, who testified against Lemke, got 14 years in prison. Lemke received life in prison and is not eligible for parole until he serves 25 years. Both Lemke and Hungerford have already served five years.

“I think he would have had a remarkable life,” Scott says. “He was a great person. When I think back on him, I think back that I never laughed as hard as I had with anyone. It was the silly goofy things that he would do that made life so fun.”

Les Shaver is a contributing editor for AGRR magazine/glassBYTEs.com™.

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