Inside This Issue - Opinion
Mike Bloom goes undercover
November 18th, 2013
by David Pinto, Editor
Mike Bloom, president of Family Dollar, appeared on "Undercover Boss" last week.
For the uninitiated, "Undercover Boss" is a weekly reality television program that asks company presidents and CEOs to assume an alias, then interact with their employees as an outsider would.
Among the objects of this exercise is to give senior company executives a feel for their companies, and their employees, they couldn’t possibly grasp in their official capacities. By going incognito, they get a rare opportunity to interact with staffers as just another face in the crowd.
When "Undercover Boss" initially approached Family Dollar, five years ago, before Bloom joined the retailer, the invitation to appear on the program was turned down. "They came back to us earlier this year," says Bloom. "I had been with Family Dollar about 18 months, and I believed we had some accomplishments behind us. So we decided to do the program."
Behind Bloom’s decision to go undercover and appear on the program were several factors. "I believed we had made substantial progress on such basic retailing tenets as getting assortments and layouts right," he says. "Then, too, I felt we needed to get more in touch with the stores and the people who work for us. When I show up as Family Dollar’s president, the people in the stores always know I’m coming — and the stores are always ready. This was a chance to see the company as it really is, from the inside out."
Disguised as Mark Jones, a competitor on a reality show vying for the opportunity to open a Rock & Roll bar, Bloom visited three stores and a distribution center in a week he describes as "emotionally draining and exhausting but professionally and personally the most rewarding experience of my life."
It’s impossible to know what Mike Bloom was expecting from this odyssey. What he learned, however, was, in his opinion, transformational.
"After a week, I felt differently about the company and, especially, about the people who work at Family Dollar. This probably sounds simplistic and a bit naive, but they’re regular people, they work their butts off — and they care about Family Dollar. More to the point, these are the people who are really running our company."
Asked to name three things he had learned during his week as an undercover boss, Bloom had this to say:
"First, I learned we have incredibly hard-working people at Family Dollar. Though some of them have very taxing personal lives, they come to work every day — because they care. Sometimes we take for granted that Family Dollar is just a paycheck for them. Truth is, it’s much more. It’s part of their lives.
"Second, I learned, or relearned, how to work in a store — doing basic things like checking in orders and putting stock away. I learned more-meaningful lessons as well. For example, I discovered that some products we received were going out of date before similar products already on our shelves. As a result, we have implemented a new freshness policy that seeks to vary the expiration dates for different products simply because different products have different shelf lives.
"Third, I found that our checkstand design needed to be improved to speed the customer’s experience at checkout. Then, too, I learned that unloading trucks by hand on a case-by-case basis is extremely intensive. As a result, we’ve introduced a new pallet program that reduces the time spent unloading a truck from five hours to one hour."
But the most significant lessons Bloom took from his experience on "Undercover Boss" revolved around the people. He relates a story about one employee who invited the Family Dollar president to his home, where he entertained Bloom by playing the drums. Bloom, also a drummer, reciprocated.
The emotional peak for Bloom, and for the Family Dollar staffers, came at the end of the exercise, when Bloom was unmasked as Family Dollar’s president. "We had come to know each other by then, so it made no difference to them that I was the company president," Bloom explains. "They had decided I was one of them — and I remained one of them."
The experience confirmed for Bloom many of the beliefs he had about the people who work at Family Dollar.
"I think I always believed that the people in our company work hard, have a tremendous amount of energy, and care about doing a good job. What I learned was how much they care about the company, how much a part of their lives it is — despite their personal lives, which can get very complicated. When they come to work, whatever difficulties they’re facing at home, their lives revolve around Family Dollar. In other words, they’re regular people. Now that I know that, I’ll never forget it."