AGRR Magazine

(September/October 2004)

Inside Belron: A Special Report

by Debra Levy

Despite its past foray into the United States, Belron has a long list of victories and successes to its credit. In late June, the company provided AGRR Magazine with unprecedented access to its operation. For shear size, nothing in the AGR business can beat Belron. It owns or franchises in 27 countries on four continents. It employs 9,700 employees, 4,200 of which are installers who work from 1,000 branches and 3,200 mobile units.

AGRR was free to visit any branch, any location and speak privately with any employee it wished. In a four-day whirlwind, AGRR publisher Deb Levy and photographer Patricia Kopf visited five retail locations in four countries, the Eurofitter competition, the company’s world headquarters in Richmond, and its main call center in Bedford, U.K. What follows are Levy’s observations from that visit:

“Customers want to see their cars while they are being fitted,” said Gento van der Sanden, the branch manager of the Carglass branch in Tilburg, Holland. “We did many studies and found out that customers want to look at their cars from the waiting area while they are being fitted, so we put big windows in the walls and customers can view their vehicles now. We designed it so that the customers can see their vehicles and the manager can see both customers and employees.”

A room with a view is just one of the ways in which you can tell that this store is owned by Belron. The cleanliness is another, the standardization of service bays a third. Supply sources are also standardized with some exceptions. Though Dow Automotive has most of Belron’s business, SIKA is used in Germany, Belgium and Canada. While the footprints of the stores and the customer service areas varied, the bays did not. “We occasionally must move fitters from one location to another,” smiled Pascal Bernard, sales support and training manager for Belron Technical, “this way, it is easy for them to work efficiently.”

And these guys had lots to smile about. In the Netherlands, Carglass has a full 50 percent of the market. Its next closest competitor (located not-so-coincidentally in the same strip mall) has 10-15 percent. Carglass has 52 locations in this country, and isn’t planning any more. “We are pushing mobile now,” said John Robinson, director of sales and marketing for Belron Technical, “there won’t be any more branches here.”

All Carglass mobile units have a mobile canopy for use over installations done in light rain; in bad weather, the technicians will go and pick up the car and bring it to the branch. “We have lots of ‘dry locations’ we can use,” said Van der Sanden, “we have trade agreements with rental agencies, fire stations, etc. Bad weather is really not a problem for us.”

Twelve people work in the Tilburg location, which does 200-250 jobs a week, and 50 percent of those jobs are windshield repairs. The Netherlands, in general, has the highest repair ratios in the world, and locations here have the highest repair percentages at Belron. “That may be due to the famous Dutch love of cost-efficiency,” added Robinson, “as most insurers provide repairs free there.”

“We cultivate repairs,” said Van der Sanden. “When our fitters are out on mobile assignments, they look around parking lots for jobs that need to be done. We pick up quite a bit of business that way.”

Another business the location is cultivating is the “victim” business. The Tilburg location, along with many others in the country, is participating in a pilot program designed to help victims of car robberies. Computers with a direct link into the local police stations have been placed right in the customer waiting areas, so customers can make their crime reports to the police while they wait for their glass to be replaced. “Customers are very happy they can do this here and save a trip to the police station,” he said, “although closed circuit TV has really reduced the amounts of body glass being broken.”

The Tilburg location has a good-sized warehouse. It receives a large delivery every week and a small order every day. An inventory of the top 50 most commonly-replaced windshields and sidelites is kept on site and additional parts are ordered daily. All orders made by 1 p.m. arrive the same day.

The glass is unwrapped and inspected when it is unloaded at the point of delivery. Every windshield is inspected visually and on a light table. Each and every branch has a light table which is also used to inspect each windshield before it is stored. “The time to know you have a problem is when you receive the glass, not when you are going to use it,” said Van de Sanden.

When asked to name some of the biggest challenges he faces, Van der Sanden cited technology. “The windscreens are getting more and more complicated and it’s harder to keep fitters informed, that’s one challenge. So is having to get a new windshield for replacement, because when they are first new, we must get them from an [auto] dealer and we lose money.”

Company’s Coming

For a man about to have 300 of his company’s best installers and company bigwigs descend on his branch, Van de Sanden does not look too phased. In fact, he asked for it. “We’d had the Eurofitter competition each year in Belgium,” said Robinson, “but this year we asked the branches to vie for the right to host it. Tilburg won.”

The Eurofitter competition is Belron’s signature event this year (See box on page 35). Held every other year, each country’s best fitter competes for the title of world champ, along with an array of prizes, which this year included a trip for two to the Grand Prix racing championships.

“The competition covers every aspect of fitting,” said Jeff Boekstein, group sales and marketing director and the person with overall responsibility for the event. “Skill with the customers is important, skill in fitting is important.”

Fitting Fitters

“Our whole profile for hiring fitters has changed,” Van de Sanden explained the morning the Eurofitter competition began. “Years ago, we hired 20-25-year olds who were good with cars and had some automotive aptitude. We don’t do that any more. We look for fitters 25 and older, with wives and kids, who have good customer service skills. We’ve found it’s easier to train them to be good fitters than it is to train them to be good with customers.”

These insights, along with technical knowledge, provide the basis of skill sets the company is now using to grow by franchising. “We had underestimated the value of our know-how, which is very transferable,” said Marc Vanholst, the general manager for franchising who works from the Netherlands. “We now seek to expand elsewhere.”

Belron franchises only entire countries, no smaller regions allowed. When asked what he looks for in a country as a good candidate for franfranchising, Vanholst enumerated three drivers: first is the status of the insurance industry in a country; second, the stability of the country itself and third, the choice of franchisee. “In all countries, I’d pick the strongest player, the one with the best structure and management team in place. They have to run the business. We don’t want big, tyrannical people, we want people who have had their feet in the sh**. We look for hungry people, and people who believe in the service concept.” Vanholst said franchises are sold for as little as EU 50,000 (approximately $62,000 USD) to “ones who want to grow with us.”

Does that mean Belron might attempt to find a franchisee in the United States

“If we go to the States, we [our franchising department] couldn’t do it alone. We would have to do it in combination with London,” he said. “If we do go back, I don’t think we will go with a big bang,” he said. “I think we will go step-by-step. We have learned our lesson. In those days, the sky was the limit. We have no intention to grow for growth’s sake only. Better to go step-by-step and choose where you will have the best success.”

Managerial Munificence

“All our managers are encouraged to be entrepreneurial,” said Robinson. Belron has a separate incubator program for new markets—smaller, new companies that enter the fold. Companies in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain and Brazil are currently in the new markets program. Once they reach a certain level (believed to a certain percentage of market share), they are no longer considered to be in a new market and then report directly to London.

“Spain’s a great example,” said Van de Sanden. “In 5-6 years it has grown to 65 locations.”

Germany, though, presents some growth challenges. There, Belron’s Carglass holds a 15 percent share of the market. It does 475,000 jobs a year, with a 34 percent repair rate. A full 80 percent of its work is done for insurers and fleets and its mobile percentages are dismal.

“We have a 15 percent mobile rate,” said managing director Herbert Busen. “The usage of mobile service is very low because it is a quality issue there. In Germany, mobile work is perceived as not as good [as shop work]. We are going to change that. We know that people there will travel no more than 20 km to get their glass fixed. We are going to compete on quality and convenience.”

Busen says that the German market has other challenges because car dealerships have 56 percent of the market, auto glass specialists, such as Belron, only 26 percent and garages, 15 percent.

“Dealers have a repair rate of only 3 percent, so the insurers love us,” he said, “the dealers are trying to keep the market closed….Germany is very challenging, but with a lot of opportunities. We demonstrate high culture, good standards and volume...”

While Busen is relatively new in his position in Germany, his counterpart in France has been growing business there at record rates. “Belron wants you to be better and cheaper,” said managing director Gérard Damski. Youthful-faced Damski who admits to being 40, ran the Belgium operation before moving to the 200-branch operation in France where repair rates are 34 percent.

“We put customer service at the heart of the company … what you don’t measure, you don’t get. I get copies of all 2,000 interviews of customers to review. A full 98.8 percent would recommend Carglass to friends.” What is he focusing on in growing business in France? “First, eliminate all bad experiences for customers,” Damski answered with rapid-fire speed. “Our vulnerability to one bad experience is high. Second, attitude. We have changed our hiring profile from people who love cars to people who love people. Third, speed. We measure service by the hours. We have changed the length of time considered a ‘long time’ to wait for vehicle glass work. We raised the standard.” “We have great awareness in France,” he added. “One in three people can sing our slogan. The glass business is not what people in the States think. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe it is not sexy, but it is deserving of respect.”

Branching Out

“The big difference between Belgium and France is that there is more discipline in France than Belgium,” said Damski when asked to compare the two. That may be so. A visit to one Carglass branch in Ghent, Belgium, found the manager so overextended, he could not talk with us. The manager worked with headphones in an attempt to keep up with the number of incoming calls and walk-ins. “This is a very difficult branch to work in,” said Bernard, who used to manage himself. “It’s a hard branch to keep people and plus some are off on vacation now.” When the manager finally did get a breather, he ran into the break room then came out eating a sandwich saying “sorry, no time, either I talk to you or eat lunch.” Lunch rightly won.

There was an exactly opposite experience at the branch in Den Bosch, Netherlands. The location performs 350 jobs a week in five bays. It employs 20 people, including 13 full time installers and four part-time. It was a lean, mean working machine, with branch manager Laurens Janssen simultaneously answering employees’ questions, refilling coffee and chatting with customers. If a branch could be a workhorse, this was it.

The Belgium branch in the beautiful city of Brugges is normally one of the busiest in the country. It sports a special truck and bus service area complete with recessed bay so large 18-wheelers can be accommodated. Two arrived for service in less than the hour we were there.

Each customer service area at every location visited was maintained meticulously. All offered free coffee, magazines and spotless restrooms. Some even had children’s toys and play areas. Each area showcased the additional services offered—glass cleaner, VIN etching and a pilot program for window film on cars.“We have been testing tinting for the past two months,” said Den Bosch manager Laurens Janssen. “We’ve gotten eight jobs in that time, without any advertising.” Inquiries come from the materials in the waiting area.

What Doesn’t Fit

“When we get to the headquarters, you’ll see it doesn’t really fit an auto glass company,” said Robinson on the way to Belron’s world headquarters in Richmond. “We rented the location when we were still known as Solaglas and we were selling architectural glass. We were doing a lot of work with architects then. Architects loved it.”

The “it” in question is the 208-year old “King’s Observatory,” owned by the British crown and one of the most visible historical properties in suburban London. The building was created by King George III in 1769. King George III, who fancied himself a bit of an astronomer, built an edifice in which the entire roof opens to 360 degree views of the stars.

Belron was able to lease the property only when the rock group Pink Floyd released its option on the space. As part of the lease covenants, it must allow visitors to tour the property and it is opened to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is also surrounded by a golf course. Ronnie Lubner’s office is in the actual observatory. Gary Lubner and a staff of 40 work in a nearby building. The company is in the 18th year of a 25-year lease.

“I do the tours,” said Ros Drummond, executive assistant to Ronnie Lubner, of her interesting additional assignment. “I’ve learned quite a lot of history about the building over the years. All the glass is original.” Drummond said Ronnie Lubner is not at the office very much any more, having recently purchased a home on the exclusive cruise line the Residence at Seas. “But when he is in London, he is here,” she said. In addition to Lubner, the president of Avis Worldwide also has an office in the building.

Calling All Cars

Our last visit was to Belron’s call center in Bedford, approximately 90 minutes north of London. The center is open 24/7 and handles 32,000-40,000 calls per week. A full 75 percent of those calling are referred by insurers. Unique to Belron is its willingness to send installers out on nights and weekend. “80 percent of what we dispatch is mobile work,” said customer contact center operations manager Patrick Dignan, “and we dispatch at night as well.” Approximately 66-150 customer care specialists are working at any given time, with 268 people total working in the building.

“Our calls peak first thing in the morning and that continues until 10 a.m., then volume increases again at lunch time and at the end of the day” Dignan said. All calls are recorded. The average length of a call is just under five minutes. The repair rate from jobs booked at the center is 26 percent.

“Our goal is to make ourselves as sticky as possible,” explained Dignan. “We don’t want them to get off the phone without booking through us. The procedure is always the same: hit the government database, hit the insurance database, check stock availability, check to see if the customer owes us any money and schedule the appointment,” he said.

Coach and bus business is also booked from this location, which has the appearance more of a frenzied dot.com company than a call center. Drinks and candy are free, a cafeteria operates full time, news and messages are displayed on screens (and windshields) throughout the floor and Internet and video games are available to employees on breaks.

One would expect an employee turnover rate of 25 percent to be Dignan’s biggest problem, but he said that’s well below industry average for call centers. He says his biggest problem is the heating and cooling in the building. “With all these people, it’s tough to get it right for everyone.”

Call center specialists undergo three weeks of training and then spend some “polishing time” working in a special area. “We keep the knowledge box small so they can be trained easily,” he added.

Dignan says his overall performance ratings hinge on two metrics: his contact-to-conversion rates (number of jobs booked) and his net conversion rates (number of jobs done). While visiting, we were able to listen to a number of incoming calls. Repair is always included in the scripting, even if the caller asks for replacement right away. Problem jobs or complaints go to a separate area. Scripting requires the consumer be informed that it will be at least two hours before the car is safe to drive.

A Familiar Face

The most familiar face of Belron in the United States is Glass Medic, a trading business which is part of Belron Technical. “Belron Technical has three departments,” said Robinson. “It has an innovation department—it does research on new tools and the ways to implement them. Fitters give us lots of ideas. Our trimmer came from a fitter in Sweden working in the middle of nowhere using it. The wire we now use for removal came from a fitter in Holland.

“The second is Glass Medic, which sells tools and equipment worldwide. We are also the dominant supplier internally. When appropriate, we will sell some products externally as well. Glass Medic’s largest sales are of its repair products,” he said.

“The third area is our technical center, which works to standardize and implement best fitting practices across countries. We are working on a whole system of fitter information and best practices.” Robinson says that they have five times more problems with installations on old cars than they do on new ones.

“You can’t tell people ‘you have to use this tool,’ or ‘you have to do it this way.’ You have to convince them,” he said.

Training currently is handled by each country. All have training directors and trainers who usually are responsible, for eight locations.

“We work constantly to make sure best practices are followed,” said Patricia Millet, head of training for France. Millet was a top training director at another company before being recruited by Belron nearly two years ago. “What I like about this company is their commitment to quality. They make you want to die to do it better. They care, so they make you care.”

A Feeling We Are Not in Kansas Anymore: Auto Glass Nirvana

Upon first grasping the European auto glass replacement market, one more familiar with the U.S. might feel that that he has entered an alternative universe.

Or better yet, died and gone to heaven. Auto glass replacement is a highly-respected, very profitable business in Europe. Let me repeat that.

Auto glass replacement is a highly-respected, very profitable business in Europe.

Consumers are aware of the need for a quality job and generally choose “specialists” rather than auto shops or dealers for repair and replacement. Indeed, repair and replacement seem to co-exist as technologies without the tension inherent here in the United States. People identify auto glass replacement as a distinct business and can usually cite the name of the company they would visit for auto glass work. And (having worked hard and spent a fortune to make it that way) the company they usually choose is Belron.

Innovations abound. From the use of wire as a removal tool to the computers in the shop waiting rooms connected right to the police stations, consumer comfort and ease is at the forefront. Vehicle etching, window film and other diverse products are all sold from the auto waiting areas.

Pricing is not nearly the issue that it is here, as the replacement companies issue their own price lists and control their pricing.

You can sense the pride among everyone from CSR to technicians. A number of those who talked to me about jobs used the word “profession,” in discussing their work. Technicians there stay at the same company for their entire careers more often than not.

Visiting gave me a sense of what our industry could be. It gave me a view of nirvana. It was a glimpse at what we could be here, and I liked it over the rainbow. —DL

What's in a Name?

Quite a lot actually. As detailed in PSGI: One Hundred Years: “The original plan was to rename the company after Morrie and Bella Lubner—perhaps MorBel or BenMor. That was a no-no because in French it sounded like “bad death.” We tried all kinds of ideas and eventually plumped for ‘Belron.’ The name held obvious echoes of Bella, Ronnie and BL, Bertie Lubner.”7

The Belron logo has long roots as well. If you look closely at the familiar red and yellow logo, you’ll see it is actually a stylized rendition of the letters A and W. This goes back to the company’s original acquisitions, when Autoglass and Windshields were joined as one company. Though Belron may keep the names of companies it acquires, the logo is always changed.

Where the Stores Are:

While the company’s headquarters are in the U.K., Belron operates under a variety of names around the globe:
Autoglass - United Kingdom, Italy
Belron Canada - Canada
Carglass - Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland
O’Brien Autoglass - Australia
Smith & Smith Autoglass - New Zealand Windscreens O’Brien Australia

( Left: Den Bosch, Netherlands) Belron has also has a growing franchise program. Franchises have been started in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Israel, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. More are planned.

The company also owns and operates a research and technology arm called Belron Technical (formerly Automotive Glass Solutions International) from the United Kingdom, which includes its Glass Medic worldwide repair programs and two distribution companies, Laddaw®, also in the U.K. and Origlass® in Italy. (Right: Brugges, Belgium)

You Say Lorries, We Say Trucks

While all auto glass companies speak an international language, there are some differences between the European and U.S. terms.

Europe United States
Body glass Sidelites
Coaches Buses
Fitters, Installers Technicians
Fitting Installing
Lorrie Truck
Specialist Employees CSRs (sometimes also an auto glass shop)
Public Floatation Going Public
Toughened Glass Tempered Glass
Turnover Sales
Vehicle Glass Auto Glass
Windscreens Windshields

 

The Eurofitter Competition

The company sponsors an annual competition for its best fitters (auto glass technicians) once a year. Competitions are held within each store, region, and country until a champion is crowned.

Each of these winners then compete once a year at the Eurofitter competition. Held this year on June 29th, the competition featured 9 finalists from 8 European countries and Canada. (Working on a car model not available in North America and that he had never see before, the Canadian entrant had quite a challenge before him, but rose to it nicely.)

The contestants spend the whole day in competition and are judged not only on the quality of their work and how closely they follow Belron’s best practices, but also on their interaction with the customers. With contest officials playing the part of customers, each fitter participates in a mock encounter with customers and are judged by how well they conform to Belron’s best practices for customer contact.

1st Place Replacement Willy Florquin, Carglass Belgium
2nd Place Replacement Laurent Beugueho, Carglass France
3rd Place Replacement Andrea Arena, Carglass Germany
Best Repair Ahmet Cosar, Carglass Netherlands

Belron’s reach beyond Europe is being felt and next year the competition will retire the Eurofitter name and become known as “The Best of Belron.”

High Finance

The following is the 2002 profit and loss statement for Belron International. This is the last year for which statements are available.

  Millions Approximate Of Euro US Dollar Value (millions of dollars)
Sales (Turnover) 981.4 1,200 ($1.2 billion)
Cost of Sales 521.4 640
GROSS MARGIN 460.0 564
Commercial Charges1 151.2 185
Administrative Charges2 233.6 286
Research and Development 2.6 3.2
Other Operating Income 2.0 2.4
Operating Profit 74.6 91.4

1Charges generated by commercial infrastructure (regional centers, points of sale) such as indirect sales costs, rents and depreciation.

2 Other staff costs, including marketing and IT costs.


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