“Call Roto-Rooter, that’s that name/And away go troubles down the drain.”
Like the decades-old jingle goes, “Undercover Boss” has decided to call Roto-Rooter.
Rick Arquilla, president and COO of Roto-Rooter, is the latest big company executive to undergo the “Undercover Boss” experience. On the episode airing Sunday, April 4, viewers can watch Arquilla disguise himself and work alongside the front-line employees to get a more realistic picture of what goes on at his company.
Arquilla, 57, wasn’t certain at first what he was getting into.
“Honestly, you pause for a minute and think, ‘I don’t know anything about this show. Don’t know the concept, don’t know what they’re planning to do. What’s the intent? Is it a gotcha show?'” Arquilla tells Zap2it in a phone interview. “None of the shows had aired [yet] so we had agreed to do it without having seen anything.”
The Cincinnati-based married exec with three grown daughters spent 10 days taping the show in four cities: Symmes Township in Ohio, New Orleans, Des Moines and Chicago.
What was your backstory?
ARQUILLA: The backstory was the 75th anniversary of Roto-Rooter, which is true. We played the small production company doing a documentary on the 75th anniversary. I’m the new guy, Hank. I’m an unemployed lawncare technician looking for non-seasonal work, looking for something year-round, getting tired of working half a year and then being out of a job.
What input did you have into your “disguise”? Was there talk of growing a beard?
ARQUILLA: The joke was, “How long would it take you to grow a beard?” And I go, “Give me 5-10 years and I’ll get back to you.” So facial hair was out. Frankly, we have a company policy of other than a mustache, we don’t allow facial hair. So that wasn’t going to happen anyway. I just let my hair grow out a little bit and tried to look scruffy in hats and glasses and that sort of thing.
ARQUILLA: As far the character itself, one of the things I was really happy with is they didn’t script me, which I was thrilled with. However good or bad the finished product is, at least it’s me.
Did you have any plumbing experience before this?
ARQUILLA: No, I did not. I’ve observed at Roto-Rooter over 21 years. This is the first time I’ve actually rolled up my sleeves and said, “Let’s try this stuff.” Boy I’ll tell ya, I was OK at some jobs and really lousy at some others. I seem to be OK at the drain cleaning, sewer cleaning part of the business, using our closed-circuit camera system and running our jet truck, which uses high-powered water pressure to clean lines. Not so OK at welding at our manufacturing facility or at dispatching the technicians.
What was your experience like using the Roto-Rooter machine itself?
ARQUILLA: The sewer cleaning was done with the Roto-Rooter machine, and then I had a chance to manufacture it, weld it when I went to Des Moines, Iowa. I really thought the welding would be a break in the action. I thought it was going be the basket-weaving course in college. I found welding to be the hardest of them all for me. I couldn’t get it. If you go too slow, you cut the metal. If you go too fast the weld doesn’t hold. Couldn’t weld in a straight line. You name it. What did I do right? Nothing. I’m not going to be a welder anytime soon.
There’s one scene where you’re crawling on the ground and you say, “If I see a rat, I’m going to scream like a little girl.”
ARQUILLA: (laughs) Not a manly scream, a little girl scream. I’m scared to death of them. Frankly I forgot I was on camera. I was talking to the technician I was working with so I kind of forgot the mike was on and forgot that somebody might have a camera. I’m by myself in a crawlspace under a house. I figured nobody’s paying attention, talking to myself. Then we see this promotional ad. There’s a little secret that’s out. So yeah, rats and snakes are high on my list of things I don’t like being around.
Were you surprised by working with any of the people working on the front lines?
ARQUILLA: I was surprised how hard the job was when it was my chance to do it. I was a little taken aback by the difficulty level. It was dirtier, tougher and nastier than I thought, and you can’t run and hide. You’re always in front of the customer.
ARQUILLA: On a more personal level it was kind of a “Wow, these people have a lot going on in their lives so it’s not so simple as just to get up, get dressed, go to work.” A lot going on outside the Roto-Rooter workplace in their lives, and I’m truly impressed by their ability to compartmentalize. The reveals that hit closer to home, hit closer to my life were obviously more gut-wrenching. They were all very emotional for me. I think you’ll see that Sunday night. If you have any heart whatsoever and any kind of compassion, it’d be hard to not to have the lives of these folks have an impact on you.
Has your assessment of how the company has been running changed after this?
ARQUILLA: I think for me it was a lot of what we do at Roto-Rooter is a time-based model. How long does it take to answer the phone, dispatch a call, send a technician? How long does it take to do the job? How long to get to the next job, etc.? An eye opener for me was that some jobs that we thought didn’t take very long can sometimes take a bit of time. Jobs that we thought were very complicated and take a long time to complete were actually shorter in time frame.
What was the general reaction when you revealed your true identity to the employees?
ARQUILLA: It was fun watching the reaction of “Oh boy, here we are in the corner office with all the fancy furniture. And you’re not really Hank.” It was kind of a neat, fun way to bring it full circle to say, “We’ve done a lot together here and here’s what we plan to do,” to see how excited, appreciative, emotional they were as a result. It was just neat. It was fun not to be the undercover boss and be Rick the president and say, “Hey on behalf of the company, here’s what we’ll try to do for you.”
Are you still in touch with those front-line people you worked with?
ARQUILLA: The plan is to [stay in touch]. What matters to me is, obviously everything we want to do professionally and personally for these folks involved, we have to stay in touch to make sure it’s going well. I’ve had some interaction with more than one that have gone out of their way to let me know how much the company is doing for them, what it means to them. In many ways it’s a life-changing event. It feels pretty good to know that when they take the time to call you or write you, it’s not because “Undercover Boss” is requiring it. There are no cameras on but it’s because that’s how they feel.
Can you sing the old Roto-Rooter jingle?
ARQUILLA: Can I sing it? Yeah, I did sing it at our finale in hopes that maybe it would make the show. I doubt it will, but you gotta know how hard that was to me. I’m still traumatized since 7th grade when the music teacher made you sing solo so they could decide which group to put you in: Talented, Somewhat Talented and Find Something Else to Do in Your Spare Time. I was put in the [last] group. So I was monotone, no confidence, hated that more than anything. But for the team, I did sing the jingle for the finale. I think whoever’s editing and heard it is going, “No way. They’ll be switching their channels.” We’ll see. We’ll cross our fingers.
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Photo credit: CBS, Eisen Marketing Group