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An 'Undercover Boss' learns some humbling lessons

7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto spent seven days in franchisees' and employees' shoes for the CBS show 'Undercover Boss.' Running himself ragged underscored for him that the way to lead is to support the troops.

May 16, 2011|By Cheryl Hall
  • 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto, left, gave deliveryman Igor Finkler a franchise. The firm now has a program to identify people who are ready for advancement.
7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto, left, gave deliveryman Igor Finkler a franchise.… (Vernon Bryant, Dallas Morning…)

Reporting from Dallas — When Joe DePinto finds his early-morning inbox packed with foreign emails, the chief executive of 7-Eleven Inc. knows his segment of "Undercover Boss" has aired in some distant land.

"Most mornings when I wake up, there will be 12, 15 emails waiting in my inbox," says DePinto in his headquarters office in the Dallas Arts District. "The mornings that I've got 40 or 50, I know it's shown someplace else, like Korea, England or Australia."

It's a phenomenon the 48-year-old CEO couldn't have imagined when his marketing staff corralled him into doing a pilot episode of a reality show a little more than a year ago.

He initially told 7-Eleven Chief Marketing Officer Rita Bargerhuff she was nuts to suggest it.

But on Feb. 21, 2010, the world saw a scruffy-faced Joe DePinto, a.k.a. Danny Rossi, put on an orange 7-Eleven smock and handle rush hour at a busy store on Long Island, try his hand at making doughnuts in the corporate bakery in Baltimore and distribute fresh food and sandwiches on the night shift in North Texas.

He let coffee puddle onto the floor. He became Lucy on the bakery conveyor line. He nearly fell on his face wheeling boxes. And he ended each day absolutely exhausted.

"Seven days nonstop," DePinto says. "I got a dose of three different shifts. It brought me back. I've had a job since I was 13 years old. I started out as a paperboy, worked a myriad of manufacturing, hotel, all kinds of different jobs."

Since its premiere, DePinto's "Undercover Boss" segment has rerun twice on CBS and been picked up all over the world.

Why does DePinto think the show resonates universally?

"There's been a lot of bad press — some of it rightfully so — about bosses taking advantage of situations or not leading the right way. A lot of companies failed because of this."

DePinto grew up in a typical Midwestern family in Chicago. His father worked for Alberto Culver in distribution. His mother stayed at home to raise four kids.

He fell in love with West Point the moment he saw it in high school. "The place is steeped in tradition and makes you proud to be an American," he says. "I wanted to serve my country, and that's a pretty good place to start to do that."

That military bent and his commitment to servant leadership are the guiding forces of his management style today. The pairing isn't incongruous, he says.

"At the core, it's about support. I was an artillery guy. I was taught, 'There is this maneuver element out there — the infantry and the armory. Your job is to support them.' That's all we did. We worked to support those guys.

"It's the same thing here," he says. "Our franchisees and our store managers are the ones who get it done every day with our customers. Everybody in this [headquarters] building, our job is to figure out how to best support them so that we reduce the time and energy that it takes to get done what they need to get done."

When the producer of "Undercover Boss," Studio Lambert Ltd. in Los Angeles, wanted him to go on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to promote the series premiere, DePinto balked again.

Studio Lambert wouldn't let him see the show in advance but gave a sneak preview to his marketing team. "It gave us chills," says PR director Margaret Chabris. "It was awesome. It was real and moving."

"They came in after seeing it and said, 'You're going on Oprah,'" DePinto says.

DePinto's segment helped make "Undercover Boss" the most popular new TV show of the 2009-10 season. CBS recently renewed the reality series for a third go.

"Joe was a fantastic boss," says Eli Holzman, executive producer of "Undercover Boss" at Studio Lambert. "He threw himself into his undercover mission like the military veteran that he is and embraced the opportunity to see his company through a different lens. His gift of a 7-Eleven franchise to truck driver Igor Finkler ranks as one of the most generous rewards ever bestowed by an Undercover Boss."

DePinto was so moved by North Texas deliveryman Finkler's patriotic spirit and work ethic that he waived 7-Eleven's $150,000 franchise fee for a store that opened in May.

A year later, what are the effects of going undercover?

For one thing, DePinto says he's still trying to figure out how to get more unused food into the hands of the needy.

When an employee tossed out doughnuts at the end of the shift in Shirley, N.Y., on the show, DePinto came unglued. He didn't realize that the store couldn't ship its leftovers to the local food bank because they had been handled.

"That to me is a disconnect," he says. "We've got food that we throw away at night. It needs to go to the needy. If we can get it figured out, it will be a very big deal."

7-Eleven has created a program that identifies people who are ready for advancement and pinpoints the ones who need extra training. "We have a whole pipeline of talent here. We're going to tap into it," DePinto says.

And there is a greater emphasis on maintaining and servicing the stores — a big issue for franchisees.

"We've gotten significantly better at it, but we still have a long way to go," he says. "The company for financial reasons had to make some tough decisions to stay afloat."

There's also an emphasis on streamlining processes so that employees and franchisees don't get bogged down in corporate red tape.

"I thought changing the culture would happen much quicker," he says. "We have about 20,000 employees, and if you include our franchisees, it's over 200,000. Changing the culture in a company with that kind of DNA, it takes a long time. But we're on a great trajectory."

Hall writes for the Dallas Morning News/McClatchy.

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