UniFirst CEO Puts ‘Undercover Boss’ Lessons to Use


UniFirst Corp. President and CEO Ronald Croatti goes undercover. (Photo: Courtes
UniFirst Corp. President and CEO Ronald Croatti goes undercover. (Photo: Courtesy UniFirst)

Bruce Beggs |

WILMINGTON, Mass. — UniFirst CEO Ronald Croatti, recently featured on the CBS reality TV series Undercover Boss, wasted no time implementing corporate policy and procedural changes as a result, the company reports.
Croatti disguised himself so that he could work alongside rank-and-file employees in some of UniFirst’s receiving, washing, processing, sewing, and garment-personalization operations. He gained valuable insights that have already led to important changes at the billion-dollar workwear and textile services company.EARS (EXECUTIVES ASSESSING REAL SITUATIONS)
The new “continuous improvement” initiative requires all operational vice presidents to roll up their sleeves and perform various floor-level jobs they are ultimately responsible for overseeing.
“We need to become more informed by ‘doing’ the tasks prior to developing or refining job requirements, policies, and new service offerings,” Croatti says. He points to his “undercover” job of receiving full laundry bags, emptying them, and sorting soiled wiping towels.
“The job specifications for sorting towels included the use of a sorting table developed for 25-pound bags of product,” he explains. “In practice, the bags actually weigh 75 to 125 pounds or more, and the contents cannot fit on the table. That’s a significant difference that impacts how the sorting job can and should be done.”
The CEO has asked his engineering department to work directly with floor-level workers doing these tasks, including those featured on the Undercover Boss episode, to re-evaluate and redesign the process, as well as other production processes. “From now on,” he says, “this will be a routine part of all our operational assessments.”TESTING OF SNAPS FOR EASIER SHIRT PRESSING
Croatti experienced great difficulty trying to button the collars on damp cotton shirts prior to pressing them, so he’s asked for a test of snaps to replace the top buttons on some of UniFirst’s 100% cotton shirts to make pressing easier.
“Snapping is much faster than buttoning when it comes to wet garments and such a change should speed up the pressing line considerably. Ultimately, that’s good for our production employees and good for our customers.”MAKING MOST OF EMPLOYEES' INPUT
The Undercover Boss experience also shed light on the effectiveness of UniFirst’s employee communication and suggestion programs at the local and corporate levels.
“I discovered instances where our Team Partners had great ideas for improvements, but the ideas were not reaching the people who could drive change,” Croatti says. “[The ideas] were not moving beyond the supervisor level, to line management, and up to corporate, where they could be acted upon.”
He has since directed the Human Resources department to revisit and revamp the company’s programs geared toward maintaining and facilitating direct, two-way communications with every UniFirst employee.COMMUNICATING WITH EMPLOYEES
Croatti says he was pleased to see his company’s prized “family culture” was firmly rooted throughout the many facilities. At one recently acquired laundry operation, however, he learned that important information concerning employee benefits had not been effectively communicated to some employees.
In response, he assigned a UniFirst CARE (Conversations, Answers, Respect, Education) human-resources team to visit that location, meet with all levels of staff, and determine how to best integrate these and other important corporate communications going forward.
Under this program, employees get to speak confidentially and one-on-one with CARE team members to allow UniFirst to more quickly determine the best courses of action for change.
Croatti recommends that all CEOs do whatever they can to meet and work alongside their employees in nonthreatening, real-work environments and to be receptive to their suggestions for improvement.

About the author

Bruce Beggs

American Trade Magazines LLC

Editorial Director, American Trade Magazines LLC

Bruce Beggs is editorial director of American Trade Magazines LLC, including American Coin-Op, American Drycleaner and American Laundry News. He was the editor of American Laundry News from November 1999 to May 2011. Beggs has worked as a newspaper reporter/editor and magazine editor since graduating from Kansas State University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. He and his wife, Sandy, have two children.


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