A Very Different Kind of Undercover Boss

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undercover bossMichael Rubin is not your typical Undercover Boss. For one thing, he's only 37 and started his billion-dollar business, GSI Commerce, from scratch. He's no silver-spoon kid and no Ivy Leaguer. As a matter of fact, the extent of his college education is a few weeks at Villanova before he dropped out. "My mom's a psychiatrist and my dad's a veterinarian; you can imagine how that went over," he says.

He explains, "Look, I've got nothing against education; I believe it's very important." He even has several Ivy League grads working for him. "It's just that when I was college age, nothing could stop me from growing my business. I lived for it. I had to have success as quickly as possible."

The business he was trying to grow at the time was a ski shop he'd been successfully running out of his parents West Philly basement since he was 12 years old. By the time he was 21, he owned a company that was doing million-dollar retail business.

So how did he parlay that into a billion dollar e-commerce services business? The guy just seems to have a nose for what works. Back in the late '90's when everyone was coming up with wild new products and services to sell on online, Rubin believed that many of the new brands would fizzle, but that there was money to be made in helping established brands get online.

Indeed, many of those e-businesses dot.bombed while GSI dot.burgeoned.

The company is the behind-the-scenes engine for the websites of mega brands like ToysRUs, Timberland, RadioShack, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Adidas, Levi's, Bath & Body Works, GNC, the NFL, Major League Baseball, Ace Hardware, Kenneth Cole and Quicksilver, to name a few. GSI handles everything from creating the website through processing orders and ultimate fulfillment.

Looking to the future, the company is experimenting with a new breed of client, members-only discount luxury shopping sites like Ruelala.com and Gilt.com.

As an undercover boss he did things like picking and packing in his warehouse and working in the call center. And he openly admits the jobs kicked his butt. Trying to pack 90 items per hour for shipping, on top of walking nine to ten miles a day to pick those items from warehouse shelves just about did him in. Not only did he accidentally hit a co-worker in the face with a heavy box, but he actually managed to get fired from his own company for poor performance.

"I thought that because I was young I could handle anything. But after the first day I could barely walk. I just collapsed on the floor for like an hour drinking bottles of water," he says.

But the experience was enlightening, too. After doing a shift in the call center, Rubin still had the stamina to instigate a new "day in the life" program that has all his executives working in the call center for one week per year. He says he was overwhelmed by the skill and talent of his employees, which number anywhere from 4,500 to 10,000, depending on the season.

Particularly moving was his interaction with Adam, an extremely gracious and well mannered customer service rep. Adam told "Gary" (Rubin's undercover name) that he truly valued his job at GSI because he'd been fired from a similar position at another company for failing to show up for work on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. It didn't matter that he missed work because he'd just lost his baby daughter at birth. He explained that he and his fiance were planning on getting married, but hadn't saved up enough money yet. Once Rubin's true identity was revealed at the end of the show, he gave Adam $10,000 toward his dream wedding.

"I can't emphasize enough how great this was for me. I touched on every emotion, from happiness to anger to just wanting to cry my heart out. I was not at all prepared for some things; they were so deep and some were upsetting. One of the upsetting aspects of going undercover came in seeing a customer service rep treat a caller rudely. He was so angry he just about blew his cover to discipline her, but controlled himself. After he'd revealed himself, he did have a stern talk with her, and offered her additional training. In the end, she's no longer with the company.

Rubin actually came very close to not doing the show at all. "When the PR team first came to me with the project, I said, 'Get outta my office!' but then they showed me the Waste Management pilot, and as soon as I saw that I knew it would be an honor."

gsi commerceStill, Rubin knew it would be a challenge to disguise himself so none of his employees recognized him. "I didn't shave for about a week and I put on these big, dorky glasses and a hat and t-shirt. I had an alias, and told people I was a temp worker from North East New Jersey, and the store I'd worked in had gone out of business. Only one person said, 'Hey, you look a little like our CEO, Michael Rubin!' But no one agreed with him."

How did he explain a big camera crew following him around? "I played stupid," he says. "I asked the other workers, 'What's the camera crew doing here? How long have they been shooting? Why are the filming us?'" The crew claimed to be doing a documentary on temporary workers, and they made sure that Rubin wasn't the only person they focused on.

Many of the people Rubin worked with mentioned how committed they were to their families, and you could see the wheels turning in his head as he thought about his own wife and four-year-old daughter, who often have to take a backseat to his entrepreneurial drive. It's probably no coincidence that Rubin chose to watch the show quietly at home with his family, while many of his employees, clients and colleagues had large viewing parties in several states.

He genuinely seems almost overwhelmed by the experience. "I put everything I had into doing those jobs," he says. And now he's committed to putting everything he learned into making the workplace better for his employees.

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