On Undercover Boss, Roto Rooter COO Rick Arquilla Goes Down the Drain

On Sunday's Undercover Boss, the show is going down the drain...literally. Featuring Rick Arquilla, the president and COO of Roto Rooter, the episode will take its business executive-as-normal-worker theme a step further with the untrained Arquilla trying his hand at drain snaking, faucet removal, and other grim plumbing tasks.

Arquilla's training is in sales. After his 1975 graduation from Ohio State University, he worked as a salesman with several Ohio companies before going to work with the the Cincinnati-based Roto Rooter. In 1989, the company hired him to be president of its central region; within ten years, he had worked his way up to become president and COO of the company.

However, as he recently noted in an episode of Blog Talk Radio, "I have never done the work."

And the work is fairly intense. Roto Rooter is best known for its signature product, a supercharged plumber's snake that Des Moines inventor Samuel Blanc created in 1935. Equipped with sharp blades that it uses to cut through serious clogs, the original Roto Rooter was popular with Depression-era entrepreneurs who were looking for a profitable business that carried a low entry fee. Soon, the company moved from manufacturing and selling the machines to operating franchises. In 1980, the Blancs sold out to Chemed (CHE), which expanded Roto Rooter's offerings, transforming the company into a full-spectrum plumbing company. Today, Roto Rooter operates throughout North America and has franchises in Japan, Philippines, Australia, United Kingdom, Indonesia and Singapore. It also still manufactures the Roto Rooter machine.

During his time in the trenches, Arquilla explored the wide range of Roto Rooter's services, visiting four cities and trying his hand at the full range of Roto Rooter jobs, including drain clearing, manufacturing, customer service, and dispatching. Speaking about the experience on Blog Talk Radio, he admitted that, "There are certain jobs that no one in the right mind would hire me to do at Roto Rooter. I failed on numerous occasions."

Arquilla was particularly struck by the fact that Roto Rooter employees must perform for an audience: "It's hard work and there's nowhere to hide if you're having a bad day... because you're doing this work in front of customers." This was particularly hard for him because, in his words "I was incompetent on so many levels."

One of the lingering problems of Undercover Boss is its formulaic structure: while Arquilla claimed that the participants' level of personal involvement could mitigate the trend, he noted that the show could certainly become "Just too plain vanilla: nice boss meets nice front-line people, does nice things, they sing Kumbaya, show's over." Faced with that unappealing option, he admitted "I don't think I'd watch that."

Sounds like he saw the Churchill Downs episode.