Clear priorities Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

Talk about a close call.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005, Dan Wilson must’ve been holding his breath. After all, his Columbus-based auto glass replacement company had just opened a new warehouse in the area.

“The water came within two feet of the facility. Two feet,” says Wilson, who retired last month as president and CEO of Belron US Inc., the parent company for Safelite AutoGlass. “That’s about as close as you want to get. And the facility we had just moved out of was underwater.”

Still, it was a mixed blessing. Even though the new warehouse escaped water damage, many business functions had to be relocated temporarily due to the poor conditions in New Orleans following the storm surge and mass levee failures. In addition, at least 30 of Safelite’s 75 employees in the area were left homeless by the flooding.

“So we not only felt it from a business standpoint, we understood it from a personal standpoint,” Wilson says. “Many people lost everything. It was a calling on the company to see what we could do.”

Safelite set up a donation pool for employees impacted by the hurricane and seeded it with $40,000. Then Wilson put out a plea for help across the company. The response was immediate. Employees volunteered space in their own homes to take in displaced associates. Some traveled to New Orleans. Others offered clothing, school supplies, blankets, towels or dishes. Still others wrote checks.

“The $200, $300, $400, $500 checks people were writing to help individuals get back on their feet was amazing,” Wilson says. “It really described a lot about the culture and the heart of the company.”

In fact, the outpouring of generosity by employees served as a catalyst for the company to establish an ongoing vehicle through which the company and its employees now give regularly: the Safelite Charitable Foundation.

Here’s how Wilson created a culture of philanthropy at Safelite AutoGlass — and why giving away nearly $700,000 as a company last year could just be a start.

Get employees involved

Safelite’s record of charitable giving dates back to when its headquarters moved to Columbus 18 years ago and has come in a wide variety of formats.

The $760 million company has pledged corporate funds to the American Red Cross following natural disasters. It has sponsored numerous charity golf tournaments. It has entered employees in various walks, runs and even a London triathlon to raise money for charity. Its own charitable arm gave more than $230,000 in grants to Central Ohio organizations in the past year. And, Wilson says, hundreds of its employees volunteer their time on charitable boards and committees.

“We’ve encouraged our associates to participate and contribute their time,” Wilson says.

“We give them time off to do it without deduction from their compensation.”

In addition, if an employee wants to support a cause and there’s an event associated with that cause, Safelite will post bulletins throughout the company inviting other employees to participate, as well.

“We don’t attempt to put those kind of things down,” Wilson says. “We attempt to promote them.”

Safelite also supports employees’ philanthropic efforts through grants from the Safelite Charitable Foundation for the causes supported by employees.

“That’s a key driver for us,” Wilson says. “If you’re involved and you’re committing your time and it makes sense, we’re going to bend over backward to support you as one of our associates.”

Employees have responded in kind. This past year, for example, the push for fostering a philanthropic culture at Safelite netted a staggering increase in giving to the United Way campaign at this 7,000-employee corporation. A full 71 percent of Safelite’s 1,523 Columbus-based employees enrolled in the campaign for 2008. That’s up from a 15 percent participation rate during 2007.

“This was one of our very best years in terms of both participation and dollar contribution for United Way,” Wilson says. “A lot of our people are front-line people, call center people. They may not be able to afford very much, but it wasn’t how much they gave. It was that they did give. That’s what we were after.”

Wilson credits the huge jump in participation to a number of incentives that helped make giving more fun. For example, there was a cornhole tournament, a putt-putt golf tournament, a White Castle-hamburger-eating contest and a silent auction with items donated by Safelite executives. The company also made use of friendly competition to motivate giving, pitting employees on different floors of the company’s three largest Columbus facilities against each other to raise participation rates. The winning floor — which recorded an 82 percent participation rate among its 500 employees — won the right to wear jeans once a week for two months.

“It’s amazing to see how our associates respond to a challenge,” Wilson says. “We try to set the vision and provide the right setting, and they’ll climb to the top of the mountain and go well beyond anyone’s expectations to contribute.”

Make it a habit

Wilson doesn’t regard charitable giving as an expense. He views it as an investment. That’s why, even in the midst of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization eight years ago, Safelite didn’t elimi-

nate the line item earmarked for philanthropy.

“While we didn’t give as much then as we do now, we still gave,” Wilson says.

“We’ve been through good times, bad times, financial ups and downs, but we’ve always had that as a key element of our corporate fabric,” says J.R. “Randy” Randolph, a vice president at Safelite, who also chairs the employee committee overseeing the Safelite Charitable Foundation. “I’ve been with this company for 15 years, and it’s always been a part of the fabric of the company and has just gotten stronger and stronger.”

Even when the company was sold to a competitor last year, Safelite never wavered from its commitment to charity.

“The acquisition of our company by Belron S.A. was something that created even further alignment around the need to participate in charities,” Wilson says. “We saw that as a continuation and a major opportunity for us.”

Belron S.A. has been a long-time supporter of an organization called MaAfrika Tikkum, which helps disadvantaged and impoverished communities in South Africa, the country where Belron was founded. Each August, Belron sponsors a large corporate team at the London Triathlon to raise money for that charity. This past August, as a way to help integrate the Safelite and Belron cultures, the parent company invited Safelite employees to participate in this overseas event.

“We had a lot of people who wanted to volunteer for that triathlon,” Wilson says. “But we narrowed it down to six.”

Those six were among a contingency of 500 Belron employees from all over the world — including the CEO of Belron S.A. — who competed in the triathlon.

“That’s a good example of the parent company reaching out to us to participate,” Wilson says. “We got involved in what their efforts were, and it made an impression throughout our organization.”

That’s exactly the sort of thing Wilson hopes to do to expand Safelite’s charitable giving throughout all its U.S. locations.

“For us, the next phase is how do we take this culture and permeate it further into our company?” he says, noting the Safelite Charitable Foundation only raises and gives funds in Central Ohio right now. “Our company is in all 50 states. Probably a third of our payroll is in Ohio, so a big piece of our company is still outside the Ohio area.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job here. But if we are successful in getting this vision of more community involvement and more associate participation throughout the company, if we can get the rest of the company engaged in an equally meaningful way, it’s going to raise our opportunity and our potential to do even more.”

The payback

Wilson says fostering a philanthropic culture benefits everyone involved.

“When you see how your people react and how they respond to an invitation of involvement for charity, that’s a lot of reward,” he says. “It’s as much a reward for them as it is for anyone who is receiving the proceeds or giving the proceeds or matching the proceeds. So I think there is a payback for everyone.”

What’s the payoff for Belron? It’s multitiered, really. “No. 1 is doing the right thing and being a good corporate citizen,” Wilson says. “I think our people see it, and it adds to their level of pride ... and the commitment they have for their employer.”

Those in the New Orleans area made that plain to see in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

“A lot of our associates lost everything, but they showed up for work the next day,” Randolph says. “When people care that much about the company, it’s hard not to care that much about the people.”

And, he says, “It does make Safelite a better place to work. I think the associates appreciate that.”

Locally, Safelite also gets the residual benefit of the positive PR that comes with being involved in charity events.

“If it’s a bigger event like the Race for the Cure, where it involves a group of people, we’ll definitely try to represent the company’s brand position,” Wilson says.

Safelite employees often wear items with the company logo at such events.

“But that’s not the primary reason we’re doing it,” Wilson says. “A lot of that has to do with their own individual pride and their own association to the company that’s participating with them financially.”

Then there’s the benefit employees receive from expanding their horizons through charitable work.

“When I look at the people who are participating in these various charities, I think, without a doubt, their involvement has broadened their experience, their exposure, their view of the world,” Wilson says. “None of that is bad.

“Plus, quite frankly, I think we’re doing a lot of good. We feel like we’re committing our time and our money in the right kinds of things. I think we’re making a difference. And if you begin to make a little bit of a difference, in time, you can make a big difference.”

HOW TO REACH: Belron US Inc., parent company of Safelite AutoGlass, (614) 210-9000 or