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'Undercover Boss' helps make business personal

by Harvey MackaySpecial to
| April 11, 2010 9:00 PM

So there's this new guy/gal, older than most entry-level employees, who shows up at your workplace one day and wants to learn the ropes. A little unusual, you think, but you train the person to do your job and explain why what you do is important to the company.

That's the premise of one of the hottest new reality shows on television. CBS' "Undercover Boss" features CEOs learning how the work gets done at their companies and just who is doing that work - in case they didn't know.

The top dogs at companies as diverse as Waste Management, Hooters, White Castle, 7-Eleven, GSI Commerce and Churchill Downs have taken a week away from the C-suite to work in the trenches. Trading suits for company uniforms provided lessons that surprised them. They have also developed a tremendous respect and understanding of the front-line and behind-the-scenes workers who perform their jobs with great passion.

GSI Commerce is a billion-dollar e-commerce company, supporting businesses that market their products online. CEO/founder Michael Rubin says that if you've ordered online, you've probably dealt with GSI without even knowing it. He went undercover to look for ways to improve his business.

Rubin started his week with a day loading trucks - "I had no idea that this would be the most difficult work I have done in my entire life." He even wished for the first time in his career that orders would stop coming in because he was having so much trouble keeping up! He went on to spend a day each in the product-sorting department, packing orders, dealing with unhappy customers in the call center, and picking orders from the vast inventory. In one area, his performance was so poor that he was told his services were no longer needed. Rubin said, "I've been fired from my own company!"

He found tremendous inspiration from the life stories of the employees he worked with, such as Cameron, who worked night shifts and put in so many hours that his young daughter would come see him at the warehouse during his breaks. Rubin asked the little girl why her daddy worked so hard, and she replied, "because he loves me."

Rubin said the experience really touched his heart as a manager and as a man, and gave him a real appreciation for the unsung heroes who make his company run.

The Kentucky Derby looks like a fun, leisurely environment where everyone has a good time. Churchill Downs COO Bill Carstanjen sees the business from the other side, managing racetracks, off-track betting sites and hosting events such as the Derby. He decided to go undercover, even though it meant facing his fear of horses. Carstanjen vowed that he would "absolutely be better at my job because of this experience."

Carstanjen tried his hand at training, blowing the bugle call to bring the horses to the starting gate, cleaning the luxury suites, giving horses their baths and being a jockey's valet. Most of his trainers didn't see much potential for him.

He discovered that looking at numbers and spreadsheets only tells half the story of a business. "This is a people business," Carstanjen said, and knowing how people feel is vital if we want to run it well. "I was stunned how personal this experience was," he said.

Joe DePinto is CEO and president of 7-Eleven, which has 36,000 stores worldwide. A West Point grad, he appreciates the way the Army taught him to properly lead and take care of the people who support you. But he learned the hard way that making coffee is not as easy as it looks, and when a company sells one million cups of coffee a day, the brew matters. Working on a bakery line requires pride in the finished product, because you can't sell 60 million pastries a year without caring about quality. He was especially touched by the personal story of a delivery truck driver who came to America from Kazakhstan with $50 in his pocket and now says he's living the American Dream, because he can survive and be happy here. And he takes great pride in doing his job well.

DePinto echoes the sentiments of these undercover bosses: "I've always been very committed to the business ... to see folks working as hard as they were makes me feel great as a CEO, and makes me want to work even harder."

Mackay's Moral: Always remember that business is personal.

Harvey Mackay is the author of The New York Times' No. 1 best seller "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." He can be reached through his Web site,, by e-mailing or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.