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Supplement, Fall 1999

Staying Afloat

by Tara Taffera

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Consider for a moment the following situations occuring in cities across the United States. Large auto glass chains are purchasing smaller auto glass shops. That same chain is embarking on large-scale advertising campaigns that further increases their control; Family-owned business are engaged in constant conflict related to family-members having differing business views; and Customers simply leaf through the phone book and choose the auto glass company with the nicest ad (since they have never heard of any of the companies listed).

While these situations are occurring throughout the country, they don’t seems to be happening at Tennessee-based Jack Morris Auto Glass, as AGRR found last year when we spent the day at its Memphis location.

Company History

So, how did this auto glass repair and replacement business, the epitome of Southern hospitality, get started? Jack Morris, current CEO, became involved in the company through his wife’s stepfather, who founded the business in 1951 with two other men. When one partner left in 1956, Jack was asked to join. He agreed to work for one year, and would then decide if he was the right person to take over as president. It turned out he was. After working at the company for one year, he purchased 50 percent of the business and when his wife’s stepfather passed away in 1970, Jack exercised a buy-sell agreement and became sole owner. In 1974, he changed the name of the business to Jack Morris Auto Glass.

“We have had steady growth since the beginning and fortunately have not had any serious failures,” said Jack. To illustrate this growth, since 1988 the company’s gross shot from $2.5 million in annual sales to slightly less than $10 million in 1998.

Today, Jack Morris Auto Glass has shops, including mobile units, throughout Tennessee and employs 70 people. The company’s reach has expanded from its initial five-county area to 50 counties—equivalent to half the state. The company has three locations in Memphis, and recently signed a lease for a fourth; one location in Jackson that serves all of Western TN; one location in Nashville serving all of middle TN; one in Corinth, MS (located on the TN outskirts); and one in Dyersburg, TN.

Jack’s son John serves as president of the company and has a firm philosophy regarding neighboring shops. “I never spend an ounce of energy worrying about what the competition is doing,” said John. “We have steady growth regardless of what others do.”

But, competition does exist. According to Jack, Safelite has two shops in Memphis (it was one shop until recently when Safelite merged with Windshields of America), one shop in Jackson and two shops in Nashville.

A recent study commissioned by Jack Morris and performed by an independent consultant, determined that the company’s Memphis location controls 37 percent of the market, while Safelite controls 7 percent (Binswanger controls 10.5 percent); the Jackson location controls 24.8 percent while Safelite controls 16.6 percent; and at the Nashville location, the company is tied with Safelite—each controls 9.4 percent of the market.

Yet, the scale could tilt in Safelite’s favor since it recently embarked on a national advertising campaign aimed toward consumers touting its Repair Medics program. While Jack Morris has never conducted any form of advertising outside of the local yellow pages, Jack said this is a move the company is considering as insurance deductibles get higher. “We have not yet made a decision,” said Jack. “But, if advertising works for them [Safelite] we will have to seriously look at this.”

Jack did note, however, that the Safelite ads are targeting individual vehicle owners. While many of Jack Morris customers are car owners, Jack said the company employs a sales force that aggressively targets car dealers, fleet owners and insurance companies to gain business. He said insurance work used to comprise 80 percent of the business but now the figure has dropped to around 65 to 70 percent.

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Repair vs. Replacement

While both Safelite and Jack Morris Auto Glass perform both repair and replacement, many auto glass companies provide one service or the other, but not both. When asked about the apparent struggle today between repair and replacement companies, John said he doesn’t understand why there is a conflict. “I think it is strange that auto glass companies would be either/or,” he said. “We review repair as part of the service. I think the two complement each other.”

While the repair numbers for Jack Morris Auto Glass are in the 25 percent range, the company’s technicians are given incentives to repair. “I want it to be the case that if an insurer wants a repair that’s what he will get,” said John. “We try to qualify it on the phone as best we can. If we find it is not repairable, we will replace it.” John said many of his customers are aware of rock chip repair, which he credits in part to the efforts made by insurance companies.

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Keeping it in the Family

While Jack’s decision in 1998 to reduce his role in the company after 42 successful years in the business, could have been a disastrous one, it was anything but that. This was due in part to the resourcefulness and business acumen of his son John.

While John is pleased with the decision he made 11 years ago to join his father’s company, it wasn’t always part of his life’s plan. John worked as a licensed engineer for ten years and served as vice president of an engineering firm before joining Jack Morris Auto Glass.

But, his career track took a turn when pursuing his MBA, John’s thesis required him to write a business plan. “I took the easy way out,” said John. “I chose Dad’s business.” Little did he know the effect this simple decision would have on his life. “I liked what I saw,” said John. “And the timing couldn’t have been better since Dad was looking to lessen his role in the company.”

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While Jack wanted John to take over the presidential reigns, he did receive other options. Around this time, Safelite approached Jack about purchasing the company. “To me, the family is more important than the business,” said Jack. “Most of my friends were selling out, but I chose not to. I had to ask myself the question, “Should I sell out, or should I get someone to come in and take over?”

Although Jack was pleased to turn the business over to his son, he admits it was a difficult adjustment. “I made all the decisions,” said Jack. “It’s difficult to give that up when you’ve done it for so many years. If John made a decision I didn’t like, I would get nervous.”

While Jack took a step back from the company, he, John and Bill Lewis, chief operating officer, continue to gather for strategy sessions and all assist in the day-to-day company operations. John and Bill handle most of the company’s major issues, while sometimes getting Jack involved. If Jack ever disagrees with a decision made, he has a strategy for dealing with it. “If I get upset over something, I walk away,” he said.

Although there was a brief transition period, Jack is pleased with his decision to hire John. “I hate to admit this, but he’s doing a better job than I could do,” he said.

While the Morris men admit there are challenges, they say their working relationship has only brought them closer together. “We go to lunch every day and have become real good friends,” said Jack. “That’s what I was hoping for.”

 

High Referral Rates

The fact that the Morris’ business is based totally on customer referrals (customers recommending the company to others) was evident before I even entered the company’s Memphis location. “Oh, you’re going to Jack Morris Auto Glass, they’ll treat you right,” said the taxi driver, as he dropped me off at their shop.

“100 percent of our business is based on referrals,” said John. “That’s why we concentrate so much on keeping our customers happy.” Customers may also hear of the company through the Morris’ active involvement in various community organizations and activities.

But, no matter how the customer is gained, he or she is given a customer comment card after each visit. These comment cards are severely scrutinized. “In the past month, I received no negative comments,” said John. “If you have happy customers, you have repeat customers. That’s the reason we have slow, steady growth.”

According to John, out of 100 comment cards, the company may receive a few that are somewhat negative. But, John does not simply file them away. “If customers give us anything less than a nine (on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest) in any category, we call them.”

Customers seem to respond to the company’s honest and straight-forward business approach. “We don’t have any gimmicks,” said John. “Gimmicks are easy to match. But, it’s hard to take a customer from us.”

This difficulty may be due to the company’s unique philosophy toward its customers. John doesn’t believe in the mantra, “the customer is always right.” Rather, he says, “The customer is always happy—never right or wrong.”

 

Friendly Service

The people who keep those customers happy are the Jack Morris Auto Glass employees. Not all of the employees are related, but the Morris’ view the whole organization as an extended family. “The goal to running a successful business is to have happy customers,” said John. “The way you get that is by hiring friendly employees.” And, once they’re hired, John realizes he has to serve as an example. “I have to treat the employees right if I expect them to treat the customer right,” he said.

 

Going the Extra Mile

Although it may sound easy, John says the most challenging part of his job is to hire, train and keep good people. Fortunately, Jack Morris has achieved a high level of success in this area. The Memphis location is a testament to this philosophy. The company’s business manager has been employed for 33 years, the customer service manager for 18 and the shop manager just celebrated his silver anniversary. “If you look at our turnover rate, it is the lowest in the industry,” said John.

When you talk to employees, you quickly learn the company stands by its philosophy of treating its employees with respect. Jack Maharry, a company installer, said, “They could be in a good mood or bad, but they treat us exactly the same. They are the best people I’ve ever worked for.”

Gina Berryman, Jack Morris CSR, agrees. “They’re giving people,” she said. “I’ve never worked anywhere like this.”

On average, employees at the company’s Memphis location perform 30 mobile jobs, receive 200-300 calls and approximately 15-20 customers visits per day. According to Berryman, the employees pride themselves on serving customers quickly. When the company receives an insurance call, they call the customer immediately to schedule the repair or replacement. Instead of telling the customer a time, they ask, “When would be good for you?”

And the CSR is more than simply a voice on the telephone, they really work to form a relationship with the customer. And, sometimes that means going the extra mile.

For example, one busy mother who waited while her windshield was being replaced, feared she would be late picking up her child from school. A Jack Morris CSR offered the woman her car so she could run some errands and retrieve her child. Employees have offered their vehicles for similar situations on a number of occurrences. “We really believe in helping people out,” said Trudy Cook, Jack Morris CSR.

 

Looking to the Future

Looking ahead, John said the goal is to continue down the path of slow, steady growth, which would include the opening of additional shops. While he knows the future of the auto glass industry will pose challenges, this does not concern him. “A successful business is good at bending and weaving,” he said.

John realizes that every week will present new challenges. “We haven’t ever worried about the future,” said John. “We know there will always be a position for a company with good, friendly people.”   

Tara Taffera is the editorial director of AGRR magazine.

 

AGRR

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