The Wide World of Employee Sports

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Competitors from across the nation gathered in New Orleans on Feb. 8 and squared off in a battleground. The shared goal: to represent the U.S. for international bragging rights.

The competition that day had nothing to do with tryouts for the upcoming London Olympics. Those in combat were not athletes. There were no ESPN reporters on the sidelines.
Auto glass techs are just one group of professionals making sport of their trade.

The common denominator was glass.

In 2007, Safelite, the nation's largest vehicle glass repair and replacement company, was acquired by Belron, a leader in that field in 32 countries. The merger created a unique opportunity for the employees of the Columbus, Ohio-based company -- the chance to compete for what is best described as the world championship of glass repair, The Best of Belron.

"Safelite began a national competition for its technicians to identify our best performer to represent us in our parent company's international competition," company spokeswoman Melina Metzger says.

Much like professional sports, finding that ideal competitor involves the equivalent of a regular season, playoffs and even a wild card.

"We start at the market level," Metzger says. The best technicians from roughly 87 markets throughout the country (of Safelite's 10,000 employees, about 4,000 are glass technicians) are whittled to 11 division winners and a wild card (the highest-scoring runner-up among the divisions). The dozen competitors then head onward to the national level.

Glass technicians are just one of the several professions making sport of their trade.

Deep down inside every cook and chef probably harbors a desire to be an Iron Chef. For the vast majority who never get to square off in Kitchen Stadium, there are many other venues for them to take a stand. The elite chefs of the world may set their sights on the James Beard Award or perhaps a Michelin star. In the U.K., the prestigious Le Salon Culinaire International De Londres pits international chefs against each other in such categories as works in fat, preparation of a plated three-course fine-dining meal, tea pastries and miniature sugar flowers.

Less auspicious, and closer to home, chefs and cooks can always seek acclaim at any number of "celebrity" cook-offs to benefit charity or at trade events such as the Americas Food and Beverage Show. Held most recently in Miami, it showcased a two-day battle between domestic and international chefs.

Last year, the World Police and Fire Games was held in New York City; in 2013, the games move overseas, to Belfast.

Held every two years, approximately 8,000 entrants (active and retired) representing police agencies and fire departments from more than 70 countries face off during 10 days of competitions that include track, swimming, golf, stair races, mountain biking, flag football and ultimate fighting.

CSX Corp. ( CSX), a leader in rail-based transportation services, holds a National Safe Driving Championship each year in Jacksonville, Fla., where the company is based.

"We focus on truck drivers because they move shipping containers for CSX, either over the highway or in our terminals," says Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman.

The driving championship, now in its ninth year, promotes safety awareness. The drivers are owner-operators of the trucks that pick up or deliver the containers for CSX's intermodal business. There's also a division for "hostlers," the drivers who move containers around terminals. This past January, the specially designed courses for the competition were set up at the large parking lots at Everbank Field, home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

The drivers compete in local or regional competitions, and those with the best scores move on to the national competition.

The International Rail Rodeo -- held last year in Boston and set this spring for Dallas -- is a long-standing arena for bus drivers and trolley operators to test their acumen against their peers. Operators are judged on operating skills, including knowledge of safety regulations, train equipment, wayside rules, regulations and procedures. An obstacle course bus drivers must navigate is a hallmark of the event.

Bus drivers in many school districts also square off, such as the California Association of School Transportation Officials' annual school Bus "roadeo."

The military is also a proponent. Infantry soldiers serving in Iraq, for example, periodically took part in Baghdad-based truck rodeos organized to foster teamwork and put a morale booting spin on training.

Similar rodeos for civilian big rigs have become formalized since the 1970s. Today, even food trucks have gotten in on the action, with rodeos organized by food pantries and business organizations throughout the country.

Maintenance departments are not left out. They can compete and be tested on electrical and mechanical knowledge, troubleshooting and safety procedures.

Perhaps the most popular of job-based sporting events is the annual Lumberjack Olympics, a sawing and climbing competition that has been a staple of ESPN and its spin-off channels.

The world of auto glass may not be as adrenaline-pumping as stump-hauling and logrolling, but its competitors take it no less seriously.

With $10,000 of prize money in hand, Safelite's U.S. victor, Brandon Rene of Salt Lake City, will now head to Barcelona in May to challenge representatives of other nations. If he's successful, he'll pocket a year's salary as an award.

Metzger says Rene is no rookie when it comes to the world of competitive glass repair. He placed fifth in the nationals last year and "felt like had something to prove by coming back his year."

This year in New Orleans, the 12 combatants took their place around a circular stage. The various tools they might need that day were placed in the center of the round playing field.

"We want them all to be able to grab their part and their tools in the same amount of time so that nobody has an advantage," Metzger says. "Glass replacement can differ by the make and model, so they all have the same car. There are four elements. They do a windshield repair, a windshield replacement, a side glass replacement and a back glass replacement. They all start at the same time and there is a time limit, but it is not a race."

"Windshield repair and replacement is a lot more exciting than people realize," Metzger says. "We've got some innovative tools that we've introduced into the market that have really revolutionized the way a windshield is replaced. It's really interesting to see that in action during this event, and it takes special training to use them. These technicians may be some of the first within our company that are trained to use these new tools" -- among them Ezi-Wire, a tool for removing glass, and the 1-Tech, a lifting tool to grip and place glass.

The challenge isn't all fun and games. Safelite uses the events to spotlight the technicians who are "the face of our company and the ones interacting with our customers," educate other technicians and build relationships with insurance partners and other vendors.

"The way we set up this competition, all of the technicians have to meet standards throughout the year," Metzger says. "So we are looking at their quality and their performance on their day-to-day job. We are not looking for somebody who is flashy and can come into a high-stakes competition and put on a good show. We are looking for a technician who is a role model, who does the best job and is a great representative to our customers."

Those less tangible points of the competition require two judges who are stationed with each participant.

"When it begins it is sort of role playing," Metzger explains. "The judge is the customer and our technicians are trained to engage the customer, shaking their hand, looking them in the eye and planning the process of how this will work, what they can expect, what's the time frame. The judges are looking at that customer interaction to make sure that follows our protocol."

Each car is inspected beforehand to assess any point-subtracting damage that might be left by the replacements.

Then the task at hand is under way, with each step of the projects assessed from a list of nearly 100 elements. "During the repair process, are they removing the little particles of glass that are left behind? During a windshield replacement, the urethane they apply has to be a certain thickness," Metzger explains.

Metzger is rooting for Rene to do well this spring in Spain, but acknowledges it will be tough to prevail.

"In the competition, there are always variances," she says. "The car that is being used, for example, as some are more difficult than others. A technician might have a great day or he might be a little but jet-lagged and have a bad day. But we have high hopes for him."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

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