ROME — It’s a tense moment. Dripping with sweat, Casey Rose, a Safelite AutoGlass installer from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is racing the clock and a meticulous checklist to get his windshield job completed before competitors from 29 other countries. If there’s an Olympics for car glass repair and replacement, this is it.
Casey Rose with the Stars and Stripes. The Olympics opening ceremony was modeled. (Photo: Belron)
The “Best of Belron” event has previously been held in such exotic locales as Paris and Barcelona, Spain. It’s far from casual — the competitors arrive in personalized T-shirts bearing their name and country of origin, carrying the national
flag up a red carpet to stirring music and wild applause from their teams.
Home country support. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Arranged around a circle in the convention center are identical Ford C-Max cars, and over the course of the two-day event each one will have multiple indignities inflicted upon it, including having its perfectly good rear and side windows smashed, and its windshield scarred with stone chips. The competitors have to fix all that, make it look brand new, and add all the required customer-pleasing touches, like a vacuum and Windexing.
Safelite (founded in 1947 by two guys, one of whom had the unlikely name of Bud Glassman) has been since 2007 part of Belron, a British-based international company that repairs glass in 35 countries and operates 8,600 mobile units. Every three seconds, somebody is getting a Belron glass repair or replacement.
Casey Rose near the finishing line in installing a new windshield into a C-MAX. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
These installers can compete on a level playing field because they all do repairs the same way, whether they’re in Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil or China. Belron sends them out with purpose-made equipment that both cuts through the urethane holding in the old glass and levers the heavy windshield back in place (without back strain on the installer).
During breaks, I have time to study up on the history of auto glass. Early cars used simple plate glass, and you can imagine how safe that was in an accident. A Frenchman, Edouard Benedictus, accidentally invented safety glass in 1903 when he dropped a beaker that had become coated with a plastic solution — and it shattered but didn't break apart. That led to today’s laminated glass, which has a layer of plastic in between two glass sections. Henry Ford had laminated glass in all his cars by 1929. By the way, we didn’t have curved windshields until the late 1940s, or crumple zones in cars until Mercedes introduced them in 1959 (on the 220). The average windshield weighs 20 to 25 pounds, and Safelite recycled about a million of them in 2013 (they become an ingredient in road paving and carpet backing).
Belron CEO Gary Lubner. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The competition was fun to watch. Each team had, aside from numerous country folk cheering them on, a coach (who could make recommendations only at specific times) and a judge (from another country). The installers moved quickly, but if they went too fast, they skipped steps. It’s meticulous work, with lots of cleaning steps.
Rose told me he’s been installing windshields since 2009, and was formerly a crane operator on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane season is one factor in his giving that up and finding the Safelite job through a friend. “All the little things add up,” he said.
Belron CEO Gary Lubner (the third generation of the founding family to run the company) told me that events like this are a way to celebrate the line workers who often get passed over at company events. He said that Belron acquired Safelite, now a third of its business, “for the footprint and for the people,” and it’s now venturing into China (14 cities so far). He pointed out that automakers, intent on reaching tough fuel economy standards, are using a lot of glass in cars today — because it’s lighter than steel. Carmakers looking for weight savings might also use thinner glass — a boon to Belron if it ends up cracking more.
BMW's electric i3, highlighted at Belron's event, uses a wild amount of glass. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
But the glass business is not without challenges. “The last five years have been tough in some markets that have experienced economic downturns,” Lubner said. “If people aren’t driving to work, they’re not breaking windshields.” For instance, business has been down 30 percent in Spain, where there is high unemployment.
On the other hand, I’m told by Safelite’s Steve Miggo, senior vice president of operations, that the tough winter in the U.S. was great for business. It’s not just cold — extremes of temperature are windshield killers, which is why Phoenix is a big market in the U.S. Although collisions aren’t a big part of the business (body shops get that business), this is certainly a company that can say, “We meet by accident.”
There’s wild cheering as each team finishes installing its windshield. The competition is finally over, and my story would have a neat ending if focus competitor Casey Rose emerged victorious, but the winners were: Robin Bogdanowicz of the Netherlands (first), Matt MacDonald of Canada (second) and Markus Benra of Germany (third). Here's what the contest looked like on video:
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