WILMINGTON, Mass. — Adopting a “hippie look” to go undercover in his company for the CBS series Undercover Boss, UniFirst President and CEO Ronald Croatti often found himself unable to match the speed of the workers training him, as he sought to discover if he could “make the cut” as an employee.
But his week-long journey was as much about seeing the company through his employees’ eyes and learning if the “family culture” he believed to be in place was truly there.
(Editor’s note: This is a spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched the episode yet.)
Approximately 13 million people watched Sunday's hour-long episode, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show followed Croatti as he left his executive suite to become “Mike Daniels,” a former hobby-store owner looking to return to the work force.
Croatti is a third-generation president for UniFirst, the company started by his grandfather that has grown into a billion-dollar business. It provides workwear and uniforms for more than a half-million workers across North America.
Croatti visited UniFirst plants in Owensboro, Ky.; Sumter, S.C.; and Oklahoma City, where he performed various tasks. So that CBS cameras could follow him, UniFirst employees were told “Daniels” was one of two retired workers competing for one opening with the company as part of a reality TV show.
In Owensboro, Croatti met Dee Dee, who demonstrated the work of her plant’s Sew/Seal Department. The CEO tried his hand at applying heat-seal labels and sewing emblems, with mixed results.
Squeeky, a shipping operator in Sumter, showed Croatti how to fold aprons, then demonstrated how to bag finished garments as the rail system carried them through the plant. The latter chore proved particularly troublesome for Croatti. “Mike couldn’t do it,” Squeeky told the CBS crew. “He couldn’t walk and put the poly on the clothes at the same time.”
In the first of two Oklahoma City plants, Croatti met Tony, who unloads and sorts soiled textiles and loads washer-extractors. There was a scary moment when Croatti’s arm briefly became entangled in goods while unloading them by sling into an operating washer-extractor, and he was pulled off-balance. Croatti’s grandfather had been killed many years earlier when a washer started as he was loading it, crushing him.
Finally, Croatti met Julie, a floor supervisor at a second Oklahoma City plant that Croatti called his company’s “most technologically advanced.” She trained Croatti on using the triple buck press before taking him to the shipping area. Julie showed him how she had worked with the maintenance crew to develop an extension for the rail system that makes it easier for workers to load carts.
THE BIG REVEAL
In the end, the employees were called to UniFirst headquarters in Wilmington, Mass., under the premise of voting for the “winning” worker. Here, Croatti revealed his true identity and rewarded the workers for their ideas, initiative and loyalty.
“Despite the fact I had some difficulties performing many of the various tasks, I was pleased to see the systems and procedures we have in place to ensure quality and customer satisfaction are working nicely in the field,” Croatti said in a press release distributed before the episode aired.
“The Team Partners who ‘trained’ me were all exemplary workers who treated me and other co-workers with dignity and respect. And that’s extremely important to me because it means our founding-family values and family culture are also well entrenched throughout our company.”
During the episode’s final segment, Croatti reported to the entire headquarters staff and assured them that UniFirst’s family culture “is in place and doing very well.”
“We have great people with great ideas, and we need to get those ideas up the pipeline,” Croatti told the off-screen CBS interviewer as the episode ended.
To watch the entire episode, as well as some unaired scenes, click here.