1-800-Flowers Blooms on Undercover Boss

1-800-flowersOf all the people to blow your Undercover Boss secret identity, the last person you'd expect would be your brother, who just happens to be the CEO of the company. But that's what almost happened on the season finale of the popular CBS reality show Undercover Boss, which focused on Chris McCann of 1-800-Flowers.

Since he appears in commercials for the company, founder and CEO Jim McCann was just too high-profile to pull off an Undercover Boss gig, so his brother Chris, the president and COO, convinced Jim that "little" brother should go instead. But, "maybe because he just wanted to make sure he was in the show," laughs Chris, his brother Jim decided to show up at one of the flower shops where Chris was working undercover.

"I had to keep my head down and stay away from him," Chris said. "We look enough alike that someone might get suspicious." And Chris's cover had already been jeopardized when a store manager thought he recognized him at an earlier gig.

Then Chris was thrown off even more when his brother said he wanted to take some flowers home to his wife, and that "the new kid" should arrange them. "I'm in my 50s, and he's calling me a kid," Chris said. "He said he was doing it to have a little bit of fun with me, but I think he was doing it just to drive me crazy."

Learning from the experience

It's a good thing the stunt didn't completely blow the production, because just being featured on television will probably help employees of 1-800-Flowers more than the employees from any other episode. While taping, Chris discovered that there was a serious misconception about the company, and it was hurting business: Most people believe you can only order online or over the phone, yet there are actual 1-800-Flower brick-and-mortar stores all across the U.S.

"We actually started as your neighborhood florist," Chris McCann recalled. "We had 12 shops when we launched our online business in '91. We're still a full-service neighborhood florist in many areas."

He noted that 8 percent of their business is done online, but their next wave of growth is going to come from neighborhood flower shops -- like Sheryl's, whom he worked with in Waban, MA. She had run her own shop for many years, but went to work for 1-800-Flowers because she saw more room for growth there. When McCann went undercover, this new store was struggling for business. After the show, Sheryl joined forces with their local marketing group to increase store awareness. "She's become an integral part of the community -- parents stop in after they drop off their kids at school. It's wonderful." McCann says he'd like to create more jobs with more shops like this across America.

Adapting to the economy

1-800-Flowers has not been immune to the recession. Last year was the first year the company had to do some trimming, and didn't make its financial goals. The entire floral industry has been suffering of late. McCann reports that seven years ago, there were 33,000-34,000 neighborhood floral shops. Today there are about 18,000.

1-800-Flowers is branching out, if you will, developing Cheryl's Cookies and Brownies (nine stores and counting), The Popcorn Factory, and the brand new 1-800-baskets.com. Their goal is to carry gifts for everyone, for every occasion

Fannie May Chocolates is also part of their company, and it was in the chocolate factory in Canton, OH, where McCann had an I Love Lucy moment with a conveyor belt and some chocolate-covered peanut-butter pretzel nuggets. A worker named Nicole, who gets to work every morning at 4 a.m., did her best to try to straighten him out; but it's likely that this year, the plant will process a few pounds less than their annual 10 million pounds of chocolate. McCann promised Nicole that she would be included in future goal-setting discussions with upper-management to ensure that the people who actually have to meet those goals are taken into consideration. Also, McCann was so inspired by Nicole's work ethic that he set up an incentive program, which will start this summer, to reward people who surpass those goals.

Valuing the employees

McCann was constantly impressed by everyone he worked with: Dee, whose warm personality and personal connections with the people in the neighborhood is the key to the store's unmatched success, and Pauline, who brought years of expertise, skill and creativity to her floral arrangements, but felt that 1-800-Flowers' bouquets were a bit dated. In the end, Dee was delighted when McCann told her they were going to name a bouquet after her, Dee's Paradise, and Pauline was overjoyed when he invited her to help design next season's arrangements.

Jose, a 19-year-old production manager at the store in Brooklyn, NY, showed amazing enthusiasm, resourcefulness and energy, and stood out as someone who would make a great franchise owner some day. What made his success even more impressive was that he started working at the age of 14 to help support his struggling family. McCann promised to become his personal mentor, meeting with him once a week, and offered to pay the first $25,000 for Jose to open his own franchise, once he was approved. This would make Jose the youngest franchise owner in the history of 1-800-Flowers. Jose immediately called his mom to tell her the news.

"We're fortunate to be working with a company where the goal is to make thousands of people smile everyday," McCann said. His Undercover Boss experience made him recommit to see that the employees are smiling too, with everything they need to move forward and lead happy, productive lives. "We take smiles very seriously," he noted.

-- See salary info for a retail store manager and a florist.

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