Tom Feeney

President and CEO, Safelite AutoGlass

Twenty-four years ago, Tom Feeney joined Safelite AutoGlass; four years ago, he was named its president and CEO. Since then, he has championed a novel approach that puts the company’s 10,000 employees above all else—even Safelite’s customers.

“In our company, we made the decision that our customers didn’t come first, our people did. And if you take really good care of your people, they in turn will take really good care of your customers,” says Feeney, 60.

During the economic downturn, Safelite dropped its 401(k) match and froze wages; both matches and raises have since returned. Safelite also bucked the tide by increasing inventories, adding warehouses and stores, and investing in technology. While many companies have turned to automated call centers, Safelite has staffed itself with customer-service representatives (CSRs) trained to respond with empathy to callers’ issues. After all, notes Feeney, “You don’t wake up and say, ‘I want to get my windshield replaced.’ ”

CSRs email customers a confirmation of the repair and appointment details; the day of the work, customers receive another confirmation email, as well as a photo of the technician who will provide the service. Because repeat customers are rare in Safelite’s line of business, referrals and recommendations are paramount. “We want to deliver a type of service so powerful that customers want to talk about us,” says Feeney.

The approach is working. In February, both Feeney and Safelite were recognized with the International Service Excellence (large company category) and CEO of the Year awards from the Customer Service Institute of America.

Safelite, the nation’s largest provider of vehicle glass repair and replacement service, has doubled its business in the last five years. “Along the way, we tripled our profits,” Feeney says. Last year, Safelite served 4.4 million customers and brought in $1.1 billion in sales (the previous year, sales were about $1 billion); the next goal is annual sales of $2 billion.

In 2007, Safelite was acquired by London-based Belron International, which has vehicle glass repair businesses in 32 countries. The relationship, says Feeney, “could be a Harvard Business Review article.” Belron and Safelite, its largest business, have a common value system and culture, he says. Since 2008, “We have invested back into the business here in the United States … two times what Belron paid for us.”

Safelite gives employees one paid day off a year to volunteer for the charity of their choice, as well as a half-day to do so in a group setting. Feeney is himself an active volunteer, including with the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Ohio, where he is immediate past board president.

Dee Anders, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Ohio, says Feeney “just thinks so big” with a vision that spans decades, rather than years. At the same time, “his true north is to make sure that our families here at the Ronald McDonald House are taken care of,” she says.

Reprinted from the April 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.