Undercover Boss Ronald Croatti of UniFirst Gets the Hippie Look
It's always a challenge to disguise the Undercover so they'll look believable going from the boardroom to the backroom and not be recognized by their employees. The costume crew did an especially good job working on Ronald Croatti, president and CEO of UniFirst, one of the nation's largest producers of work wear and uniforms. They transformed the sixtysomething executive into an aging hippie, complete with mustache and big, bushy hair.
"I was disguised as a mid-60's hippie, and it was so hot in some places the glue wouldn't hold and my mustache kept coming off," Croatti laughs. "I had to make an excuse of going to get a drink of water to fix it."
But a droopy disguise wasn't his only physical challenge -- Croatti found out that his workers were struggling with up to 150 lb. bags of soiled linen, while the trainingthey're shown teach them how to deal with bags that only weigh 25 lbs. One of the important things Croatti learned undercover is that the company's training videos do not exactly reflect what's going on in the field, and he vowed to change that.
All in the family
It's not as if Croatti is new to the company. He joined in 1965 under the tutelage of his father and company founder, Aldo Croatti. Throughout the next 30 years he gained first-hand experience by working in virtually all areas of the company. Cindy, his sister, is the executive vice president, and his son Michael is a regional VP. Croatti met his wife, Carol, 35 years ago when she was employed at the New Kensington location of UniFirst.
Since Croatti became president in 1995, UniFirst has more than doubled business, and in 2008 they exceeded annual revenues of $1 billion. They try to "foster a family culture" among their more than 200 operating locations and 10,000 employees. The companies that use their uniforms include Wal-Mart, Costco, Goodyear and GE. They manufacture, sell, and process uniforms, as well as cleaning and pressing them.
As big and successful as the company is, however, they have not been unaffected by the recession. "When a worker gets laid off, we lose a uniform wearer," says Croatti. "Right now, we see things flattening out. We [as a nation] don't seem to be losing workers to layoffs, but we're not building the work force either."
Not sew fast
Croatti's first stop on his journey through the belly of his company was in the Sew Seal department, where they sew the emblems on the clothing and heat seal the ID tags. DeeDee, his supervisor, explained that employees can do 100 heat seals an hour -- which is a good thing, because they work on incentive: The faster they work, the more they get paid, but they have to do a good job. Suffice it to say that Croatti wouldn't be taking home a big paycheck for his work. Not only did he have trouble with the heat sealing machine, but he destroyed a shirt when using a sewing machine to attach name tags.
DeeDee was patient with him, however, and felt comfortable enough to relate her concerns about the company's stringent tardy policy. It seems that if you're a minute late or go home early you get a tardy -- and you can't get more than six tardies in a year. She especially felt the pressure of the tardy system since she has three children, and sometimes needs to leave early or give them special attention in the morning. Croatti wasn't even aware of this system until his experience on the show.
When he revealed himself as the CEO, Croatti promised to revisit this policy. He also promised to pay for day care costs for a year and give DeeDee $5,000 to go back and finish school, which she'd started but had to quit in order to support her family as a single mom.
So many benefits, so little awareness
Next, Croatti headed to Sumter, S.C., which Unifirst had recently taken over from another company. There he discovered that folding aprons and putting them in a plastic bag is not such a simple task. Squeeky, his supervisor had to stop the shipping line so that he could catch up.
Croatti also found that the management can do a better job of keeping the employees informed about the benefits available to them. Squeeky told him she like working for the old company better, because they had better benefits, not realizing that Unifirst's are actually better. Croatti vowed to keep his employees better informed, as part of the company family.
Squeeky had confided in Croatti that she wanted to move up in the company but seemed to have been overlooked. She also told him she was getting married soon. So when they met at corporate headquarters and Croatti told her who he really was, he told her he would pay for her honeymoon in Hawaii, and that he would also promote her to supervisor status.
The most dangerous job of all
The third job was probably the toughest and the most dangerous. Croatti went to work in a laundry facility, where they process about 150,000 lbs. of laundry per week. Sorting the huge piles of dirty laundry -- even untying the bags as they arrive -- is a big enough challenge, but loading the dirty laundry into the machines is even more difficult. Croatti's grandfather had been killed by a washing machine, and Croatti himself came dangerously close to losing an arm in the massive machine.
Tony, his supervisor, kept him from getting injured however, and later told Croatti how he'd moved away from his family in order to get his son away from an environment where he was not doing well. Now Tony said his son is doing great -- getting good grades and playing football. Croatti ended up offering to send Tony and his son to the Super Bowl, and giving Tony $5,000 so he could afford to go visit his family more often.
For Croatti's fourth and final job, he journeyed to Unifirst's most technologically advanced plant, where he learned how to press shirts and check them for holes, missing buttons, etc. Julie, his supervisor, speculated that Croatti's wife probably does his laundry, since he seemed pretty clueless.
Next Julie showed Croatti how she worked with the maintenance crew to extend a railing and that makes the shipping system easier and saves workers at least a half hour a day. Croatti rewarded her with $5,000 for this, and also offered to pay her rent and utilities for a year, since she told him she was a single mom living in a half-way house and had turned her life around.
In general, Croatti was impressed with all his employees and their dedication to his company. As a result of his 'Undercover Boss' experience, he hopes to better show his employees that the company is dedicated to them as well.