Volume 9, Issue 2 - March/April/May 2007

Agents of Change
Three auto glass professionals lobby to combat steering
By Les Shaver

When Tom Grim walked into a legislative seminar at the Independent Glass Association Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, he was just an interested observer. When he came out, he was an agent of change. What happened to him during that meeting? It wasn’t a religious conversion or hypnosis. Actually, it was Peter Abdelmaseh and Alan Epley. 

The only thing greater than the passion Abdelmaseh, executive director of the Massachusetts Glass Dealers Association (MGDA), and Epley, president of Southern Glass and Plastics Co. in Charleston, S.C., have in advancing consumer choice in the auto glass industry is their persistence. They got to Grim, the general manager for Allstar Auto Glass in Seattle and president of the Washington Independent Glass Association, who was already disgusted with the state of the auto glass business. “What was going on in the industry was making me angry and I didn’t like what I was seeing, so I decided to get involved,” Grim says. 

Grim didn’t just get involved. He’s made a change. While Abdelmaseh and Epley still have legislation pending in their state capitals, Grim and a small—but vocal—group of industry professionals proposed a bill that passed both the Senate and the House in Washington. That doesn’t mean Grim’s mentors haven’t made progress. Both remain optimistic about their future of anti-steering legislation in their states, while encouraging others to get involved.

Longtime Advocates
While Grim was a late arrival to the legislative party, Epley and Abdelmaseh were there from the beginning. “In 1991, the first networks were formed by USA Glass,” Epley says. “I could see the competition in the business was diminishing. It’s about fair play and it has been an issue since 1991.”

While Abdelmaseh admits he has never installed a piece of glass, he’s been a huge advocate for independents in the industry. He believes that consumers have a right to choose where they get their auto glass work done. With networks involved, he doesn’t think they get that choice. “It [anti-steering legislation] is the right thing to do,” Abdelmaseh says. “It protects the consumer.”

Epley, in his role as IGA’s legislative chair, will help out other states, as well. “We tell them how the legislative process works and, if they’re so inclined, how to organize themselves,” he says. 

Grim is glad Epley and Abdelmaseh remain so active in helping local groups. He says they sent him copies of their bills and helped with the language of the Washington legislation. He estimates he spoke with Epley 15 to 20 times and Abdelmaseh 10 to 15 times about the process. “They provided great moral support along the way,” he says.

Success
Grim also had great support among his colleagues in the Washington Independent Glass Association. The catch: There weren’t that many people in the faction. Only five to six shops were in the group originally. Instead of recruiting more members, the group decided to attack the issue of steering. First, it looked at litigation, but, eventually it figured that drafting anti-steering legislation would be the best way to initiate change.

Grim started with a simple phone call to Washington State Sen. Tracey Eide and set up a meeting in April 2006. Then fate intervened. “It was unbelievable,” Grim says. “She had her window broken out the night before so she had a little experience with the whole deal. She was on board.” 

Grim and the rest of the small association recruited seven sponsors in the Washington Senate and eight in the House of Representatives. “We talked to them and told them about what we were up against and what was going on,” Grim says. “Strategically, we picked the right people. It just kind of went from there.”

Along the way, Grim and his cohorts in the state learned a valuable lesson: The bill you start out with often isn’t the one you end up with. “We started with a bill that was strong,” Grim says. “It said companies that are retailers can’t be third-party administrators.”

The insurance lobby fought the bill and, according to Grim, added language that “really watered down the bill.” The bill, labeled 5052, passed through the Washington State Senate with a vote of 48-0. Right before presstime, it passed through Washington’s House of Representatives by a vote of 95-0 and was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. 

The final bill requires that a third-party administrator (TPA) inform customers that they have the right to choose a retail glass shop. It also mandates that call center representatives tell customers that the TPA is a separate entity from their insurer. Any glass retailer owned by an insurer or TPA will also have to inform the consumer of that relationship through a written notice posted at the facility if the bill is passed. 

While the bill’s language will give the customer insight into the TPA-insurer relationship, Grim knows it doesn’t pack the same punch as the association’s original bill. “On the one hand, I feel good about getting it passed,” Grim says, “but I really have reservations about what we got passed. I really feel like the original was changed dramatically.”

A Long Road
The anti-steering bill hasn’t become law in Epley’s home state of South Carolina, but it’s taking a strangely similar path to the legislation in Washington. The bill the glass association first put forward in the state’s last legislative session, which ended last year (legislative sessions in the state run two years), would have made it illegal for a company to be in business as both a third-party administrator and a retailer.

The new bill differs slightly. “This year’s bill allows retailers and TPAs to be in both businesses, but it will not be legal for them to refer business to themselves,” Epley says.

Massachusetts politics is a different animal altogether. Abdelmaseh acknowledges that lawmakers seem to like lengthy, complicated bills. In fact, he says short, pointed legislation won’t get passed in the state. For that reason, he sent four different anti-steering bills to the state’s legislature. “We’re trying to tie the knot and choke them because that’s what they do to us,” Abdelmaseh says.

While each bill is different, they do complement each other well. The first bill, HB1100, requires that insurance carriers must make electronic copies of their calls with policyholders available to glass shops. The second bill, HB1101, would require that insurers include their total number of glass claims, windshield replacements, windshield repairs, side and rear window replacements in their annual reports. They would also have to list the top 25 auto repair shops that did work for them. The bill would also require insurers with a third-party biller to acknowledge that. If the third-party administrator owns the glass retailer, that would need to be reported as well.

In the third bill, HB1102, MGDA goes for the jugular by making it illegal for a company to be both a TPA and retail glass shop. It also would require that call center employees disclose that they work for an entity separate from the insurer and allow customers to choose the first glass shop they mention. It also would limit what call center personnel can say to policyholders.

The final bill, HB1108, creates an Auto Glass Safety Standards Committee, requires that glass manufacturers create a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), establishes a single discount pricing plan for all glass shops (and TPAs can’t help develop these plans) and prohibits incident pricing and gap billing. 

Uphill Battle
While the South Carolina bill resides currently in the state senate’s subcommittee, Epley says the state’s House of Representatives hasn’t reviewed the bill in three years. Still, he is hopeful. “We’re hoping for some movement later this spring,” he says. “If the powers that be get together, they can move it along quickly. If key people are opposed to it, it can be stalled.”

Even if it stalls out again, Epley feels satisfaction because he’s educating people outside the auto glass business about steering and consumer choice. “We think we’ve made a lot of progress,” he says. “I think when it’s all laid out on the table and there’s not a bunch of spin, it will all be very clear what’s happening to the consumer.”

Exposing what’s happening to consumers is one thing that makes the arduous process of lobbying rewarding for Epley. “It’s the right thing to do,” he says. “It’s about fairness to all. It’s to protect the consumer. The consumer’s legal right of choice is what we’re fighting for.”

If Epley can keep spreading that message to people like Grim, he won’t have to do it all himself. Then, maybe he’ll finally realize the goal of fair play that he’s been fighting for since the early 1990s. 

Les Shaver is the editorial director of AGRR magazine.

Three Steps to Legislation
Want to draft some anti-steering legislation in your state? Be prepared. It’s not easy. But Tom Grim, general manager of Allstar Auto Glass in Seattle and president of the Washington Independent Glass Association, has some suggestions on how to make drafting and lobbying for a bill possible. Here are some tips:
1. Enlist support: While getting outside support can cost money, it’s often necessary to help navigate legislative minefields. “It’s a busy process,” Grim says. “I would suggest to people that they hire a lobbyist at least to keep them informed and stay in the process.”
2. Know the players: If you’re approaching the wrong legislators, you’re wasting your most valuable resource—your time. “We had to plan about who to talk to,” Grim says. “You obviously want legislator in leadership roles. You have to wear the sales hat and sell your idea on the legislations and why it’s important.”
3. Stay focused: With legislators to lobby, colleagues to mobilize and, of course, a business to run, it’s hard to keep balance. But if you want to make progress, you have to focus. 

“There’s keeping the group focused on what they need to do,” Grim says. “There’s keeping the legislators focused and keeping yourself focused to run a business and do this at the same time.”

Time Drain
When Peter Abdelmaseh, executive director of the Massachusetts Glass Dealers Association (MGDA), is asked what the auto glass replacement industry’s biggest problem is, he doesn’t point to insurers or networks. 

“The biggest problem the industry faces is apathetic shop owners,” Abdelmaseh says. “They just want someone else to fight this fight.”

Abdelmaseh suggests glass shops take a stand and begin crafting legislation to make a change. “Getting legislation passed is more than an off-chance sort of thing,” Abdelmaseh says. “It doesn’t happen by itself.”

With razor-thin profit margins (which many attribute to steering), it’s a challenge for glass shop owners to stay in business. That leaves little time and even fewer resources for any kind of lobbying. “At times it can be a second job,” says Tom Grim, the general manager for Allstar Auto Glass in Seattle and president of the Washington Independent Glass Association. “I probably attended more than 30 meetings. There’s a lot of face-to-face time in this.”

Kris DeFelice, who worked with Grim in Washington, was in a similar situation. She has an established company, Evergreen Auto Glass in Redmond, Wash. That gives her the ability to spend time on legislation.

“That’s why I was able to focus a lot of energy and attention to the cause,” DeFelice says. “A lot of people are running their businesses, out installing glass and trying to work on legislation. It’s tough and it takes time, energy and focus.”

While Grim serves as general manager of Allstar, he enjoys a very supportive ownership group (including Philadelphia Phillies and former Seattle Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer) that will allow him to take off and head to the state legislature in Olympia. 

“I had great ownership that helped me when I needed it,” Grim says. 

AGRR
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