Oriental Trading Co. CEO Sam Taylor let go of his clean-cut appearance, growing his hair, a mustache and beard. The 50-year-old Omaha resident traded in his button-up dress shirts and slacks for T-shirts, khaki shorts and tennis shoes.
Taylor wasn't going through a midlife crisis like some of his colleagues initially thought. It was all part of nailing the best disguise to go undercover to learn more about his company from his own employees as part of the reality TV series "Undercover Boss."
"It was a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime experience," Taylor said. And it has already changed the way he runs the company.
The episode featuring Taylor and the Omaha-based direct retailer of party supplies, arts and crafts, toys and novelties will air tonight, March 9, on CBS.
The reality show, now in its third season, follows executives from around the country as they leave their offices for undercover missions to examine the inner workings of their companies. The show has given executives the opportunity to secretly work alongside their employees and see the effects their decisions have on others, see where the problems lie and discover the unsung heroes who make their companies run.
Taylor found the experience so valuable that he now requires all 10 of the company's senior executives to spend time working in front-line jobs in Oriental Trading's fulfillment center or in the call centers.
He implemented a new employee recognition program for those who go above and beyond the call of duty.
He's working to improve communication by ensuring there's follow-up to employee suggestions and that those ideas go up the chain and back down.
Also, in addition to the quarterly meetings in front of hundreds of employees, Taylor now holds smaller, casual lunch meetings with about 30 employees at a time to allow them to speak freely about any issues.
"In a room full of 200 people, only a few people raise their hands with a question, but in the smaller groups just about everyone speaks up," he said. "... I thought I was doing a pretty good job communicating by holding meetings and having a blog, but I realized we needed to improve communication."
Improving the employee experience has been a priority for Taylor since he joined the company in May 2008. In that year, Oriental Trading ranked in the bottom 6 percent of all the companies surveyed by Gallup in an employee engagement survey. In 2011, Oriental Trading climbed into the top 40 percent. "I'm not going to be happy until we are in the top 25 percent," Taylor said.
He thinks the company's on the right track. "We made a long list of things, and we took action, and that's key. The employees have realized it wasn't just talk."
He plans to host company parties so employees can watch the show together.
CBS contacted Oriental Trading last year and invited the company on the show. Taylor was familiar with it but had never watched an entire episode. He was skeptical at first, but his wife, Stephanie, was a fan and encouraged him to take the opportunity.
After talking to a few executives who had participated in the show, he decided to go for it.
For a week in August, Taylor lived in a motel and went undercover every day for his full-time shifts at the company's fulfillment center in La Vista. His normally golden-grayish hair, which he had grown out a few inches, was dyed black and slicked back. A small hairpiece was added to the back, creating a mullet-like hairstyle. He grew facial hair and wore brown contacts, glasses and even a retainer to alter his speech.
Taylor worked four different "pick, pack, ship" jobs and was trained by four different employees. The employees knew a reality series was being filmed but were told it was about a failed entrepreneur getting a second chance at running a warehouse business. The employees were encouraged to give pointers to the guy.
"The employees were very approachable and they opened up to talk about the good and the bad of the company and what works and what doesn't work," Taylor said. "I learned a lot about our employees and that we have great people working here who are really focused on our customers."
He, on the other hand, didn't do so well. "I should have been fired," Taylor joked. "I did not do well at any of the jobs. The employees were very productive, fast and accurate, and I was very slow."
During peak seasons, Oriental Trading employs about 2,000 employees. Half work in the fulfillment center, a 750,000-square-foot facility on 120 acres that can house more than 100 million items and has more than four miles of conveyor belts. The company also has call centers in Omaha and Fremont and its headquarters offices are in Ralston.
Last February, the company announced the completion of its reorganization efforts and exited bankruptcy. The company emerged having reduced its debt by nearly 70 percent. The privately held company owned by more than 12 different financial institutions has continued to see growth.
Taylor said the company recorded more than $500 million in revenue in the last 12 months and has seen revenue growth in seven of the last eight quarters.
He said he's grateful for the experience on TV and excited to see where it can take the company.
"You can spend time walking the warehouse floor and talking to the workers, but nothing takes the place of rolling up your sleeves and doing the job alongside your employees."
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Oriental Trading Company CEO Sam Taylor needed an over-the-top disguise for his March 9 appearance on the reality TV series "Undercover Boss" because he regularly speaks to employees at meetings and company events. He even sings to them at company Halloween parties while dressed as different rock ‘n' rollers. He's been Billy Idol, Bruce Springsteen and Gene Simmons (as seen below), and he started a company rock band, the Flamingos, in 2008.