Undercover Boss Plunges into Roto-Rooter

roto rooterOf all the Undercover Boss episodes, Rick Arquilla, President and Chief Operating Officer of Roto-Rooter, realizes full well that his probably has the highest "ick" factor. After all, they deal with some of the smelliest, greasiest, grossest substances known to man.

"We're probably off the "ick" scale," he laughs, adding that during the time he was undercover and working in the field, he found a new and abiding respect and affinity for the shower. It also supercharged the respect and affinity he's always had for his employees, and helped him recommit to making their jobs as satisfying as possible, despite the gross factor.

The most challenging/disgusting job of all will surprise you. Arquilla says it is definitely "pumping a grease trap." He explains, "if the army could bottle the smell we could dominate the world" with one fell sniff. "Cleaning a sewer is a delight in comparison," he adds.

He then explains that it eventually becomes bearable to the technicians thanks to the phenomena of becoming "nose deaf," which is a sort of developed immunity for the smell, not unlike that developed by mothers to dirty diapers. And no, he was not in the field undercover long enough to develop it. One employee showed him the ultimate way to get past the odor, "Smell that?" he asked as they were cleaning out a nasty pipe. "Smells like money to me!"

Arquilla also joked about another uncomfortable situation often associated with plumbers. "I cinched up my belt an extra notch or two," he joked, when asked about it.

-- Compare your salary to a plumber's

10,000 Reasons to Go Undercover

But he became very serious when he talked about the respect and admiration he has for the 8-10,000 people Roto-Rooter employs throughout the US. "We can service about 90 percent of the country," he says, admitting that it's not always easy to keep track of the best interests of every single employee in so many diverse locations. Instituting a Roto-Rooter Career Center to help everyone who wants to get on the career advancement radar came as a direct result of Arquilla's Undercover Boss experience.

"I'm very excited about helping those people on the front line get promotions, advance, move up, and let them know exactly what to do to get on the career path," he says. 'There's plenty of room for advancement, and I want all our employees to know how to do that," he says.

As with every Undercover Boss episode, a story must be contrived to explain the lights, camera and action. Conveniently enough, Roto-Rooter is celebrating their 75th anniversary, and employees were told they were filming a sort of company documentary to help celebrate it. No one realized that Arquilla was to be the major focus. With that story and a bad haircut, Arquilla set out for the trenches.

And in those trenches, he managed to exasperate just about everyone he worked with, but in the end, he made it worthwhile for them.

Getting Down and Dirty

The first stop was New Orleans, where he did three distinct shirts. He realized that plumbing is not his gift when working alongside a cheerful employee named Darrell, pulling out all sorts of disgusting items from out clogged toilets, tubs and sewage systems. Darrell talked a little about the heart problems he'd had, and how he'd had to go into debt to recover. Later, when Arquilla was back in his business suit, he had the company pay Darrell's medical debts, and helped him establish a workout and nutrition program that would keep him healthy for a long time.

Also in New Orleans, Arquilla worked with a sewer maintenance technician named Chris, using a high-powered machine used to clean out raw sewage. Chris mentioned that he hasn't been able to eat oatmeal since starting this job, and, after seeing the sewage's resemblance to hot cereal, Arquilla says he won't be eating oatmeal for some time either. Chris had spent over six years in alcohol recovery, which touched Arquilla deeply, as his father was an alcoholic. He eventually arranged for Chris to have public speaking training so he could talk about overcoming addiction to Roto-Rooter employees nationwide.

Arquilla was surprised to learn from Henry, an unofficial go-to guy for a number of Roto-Rooter technicians when they have problems, that, in addition to sewage and other gook, there are a number of other unpleasant factors technicians have to deal with. Spiders, snakes, rodents--all sorts of creepy crawlies could accost you when crawling under houses to access drainage areas. Henry had it mastered. He also had community service mastered, as he coached basketball four nights a week and actually picked up and dropped off all his players. Arquilla not only purchased a team van, which helped them win a state championship, but he also gave Henry a raise and a promotion.

The Color of Funny

The "ick" factor, if not the difficulty factor, lessened when Arquilla traveled to Chicago to train as a dispatcher. Although he had actually designed the color-coded system used at the call center, he struggled to navigate it -- ironically enough, he's color-blind. And that wasn't his only challenge: although Arquilla is relatively mild-mannered and well-meaning, he had a bad habit of interrupting his customers on the phone, and Candace, his trainer, grew frustrated trying to break him of his bad habits. A break room chat revealed that she was behind on her mortgage and had an autistic son she had difficulty helping, so Arquilla arranged for him to be in one of Chicago's best autism programs at company expense, and gave Candace $5,000 to help catch her up on her mortgage.

Finally, at a factory in Des Moines where Roto-Rooter equipment is made, Arquilla worked with Dan to weld machinery. At least Arquilla felt somewhat at home here, as his father had also worked in a factory. He was concerned, however, to learn that Dan and his co-workers are constantly fearful they'll lose their jobs to outsourcing. "How awful it must be to work under that sort of stress," he said. Once he revealed his true identity, he assured the people at the factory that they would never lose their jobs to outsourcing, and, since they expressed an interest in working on cars, Arquilla promised to set up a garage for them to putter around in their spare time.

-- Compare your salary to a welder's.

While Arquilla had been working for North America's largest plumbing and drain service for more than 21 years, he probably learned more about Roto-Rooter than ever during his ten-day Undercover Boss experience. But, in the end, he was eager to return to his office and family in Cincinnati, as he was born, raised and educated in Ohio, a Buckeye through and through.

He's now more committed than ever to creating a positive, satisfying work experience for his employees, in spite of the high "ick" factor. "Just because it's a dirty job doesn't mean you can't enjoy it," he says, and he aims to help his employees with that every way he possibly can.

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