A Very Different Kind of Undercover Boss

undercover bossMichael Rubin is not your typical Undercover Boss. For one thing, he's only 37 and started his billion-dollar business, GSI Commerce, from scratch. He's no silver-spoon kid and no Ivy Leaguer. As a matter of fact, the extent of his college education is a few weeks at Villanova before he dropped out. "My mom's a psychiatrist and my dad's a veterinarian; you can imagine how that went over," he says.

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He explains, "Look, I've got nothing against education; I believe it's very important." He even has several Ivy League grads working for him. "It's just that when I was college age, nothing could stop me from growing my business. I lived for it. I had to have success as quickly as possible."

The business he was trying to grow at the time was a ski shop he'd been successfully running out of his parents West Philly basement since he was 12 years old. By the time he was 21, he owned a company that was doing million-dollar retail business.

So how did he parlay that into a billion dollar e-commerce services business? The guy just seems to have a nose for what works. Back in the late '90's when everyone was coming up with wild new products and services to sell on online, Rubin believed that many of the new brands would fizzle, but that there was money to be made in helping established brands get online.

Indeed, many of those e-businesses dot.bombed while GSI dot.burgeoned.

The company is the behind-the-scenes engine for the websites of mega brands like ToysRUs, Timberland, RadioShack, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Adidas, Levi's, Bath & Body Works, GNC, the NFL, Major League Baseball, Ace Hardware, Kenneth Cole and Quicksilver, to name a few. GSI handles everything from creating the website through processing orders and ultimate fulfillment.

Looking to the future, the company is experimenting with a new breed of client, members-only discount luxury shopping sites like Ruelala.com and Gilt.com.

As an undercover boss he did things like picking and packing in his warehouse and working in the call center. And he openly admits the jobs kicked his butt. Trying to pack 90 items per hour for shipping, on top of walking nine to ten miles a day to pick those items from warehouse shelves just about did him in. Not only did he accidentally hit a co-worker in the face with a heavy box, but he actually managed to get fired from his own company for poor performance.

"I thought that because I was young I could handle anything. But after the first day I could barely walk. I just collapsed on the floor for like an hour drinking bottles of water," he says.

But the experience was enlightening, too. After doing a shift in the call center, Rubin still had the stamina to instigate a new "day in the life" program that has all his executives working in the call center for one week per year. He says he was overwhelmed by the skill and talent of his employees, which number anywhere from 4,500 to 10,000, depending on the season.

Particularly moving was his interaction with Adam, an extremely gracious and well mannered customer service rep. Adam told "Gary" (Rubin's undercover name) that he truly valued his job at GSI because he'd been fired from a similar position at another company for failing to show up for work on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. It didn't matter that he missed work because he'd just lost his baby daughter at birth. He explained that he and his fiance were planning on getting married, but hadn't saved up enough money yet. Once Rubin's true identity was revealed at the end of the show, he gave Adam $10,000 toward his dream wedding.

"I can't emphasize enough how great this was for me. I touched on every emotion, from happiness to anger to just wanting to cry my heart out. I was not at all prepared for some things; they were so deep and some were upsetting. One of the upsetting aspects of going undercover came in seeing a customer service rep treat a caller rudely. He was so angry he just about blew his cover to discipline her, but controlled himself. After he'd revealed himself, he did have a stern talk with her, and offered her additional training. In the end, she's no longer with the company.

Rubin actually came very close to not doing the show at all. "When the PR team first came to me with the project, I said, 'Get outta my office!' but then they showed me the Waste Management pilot, and as soon as I saw that I knew it would be an honor."

gsi commerceStill, Rubin knew it would be a challenge to disguise himself so none of his employees recognized him. "I didn't shave for about a week and I put on these big, dorky glasses and a hat and t-shirt. I had an alias, and told people I was a temp worker from North East New Jersey, and the store I'd worked in had gone out of business. Only one person said, 'Hey, you look a little like our CEO, Michael Rubin!' But no one agreed with him."

How did he explain a big camera crew following him around? "I played stupid," he says. "I asked the other workers, 'What's the camera crew doing here? How long have they been shooting? Why are the filming us?'" The crew claimed to be doing a documentary on temporary workers, and they made sure that Rubin wasn't the only person they focused on.

Many of the people Rubin worked with mentioned how committed they were to their families, and you could see the wheels turning in his head as he thought about his own wife and four-year-old daughter, who often have to take a backseat to his entrepreneurial drive. It's probably no coincidence that Rubin chose to watch the show quietly at home with his family, while many of his employees, clients and colleagues had large viewing parties in several states.

He genuinely seems almost overwhelmed by the experience. "I put everything I had into doing those jobs," he says. And now he's committed to putting everything he learned into making the workplace better for his employees.

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Lisa Johnson Mandell

Lisa Johnson Mandell

Editor

Lisa Johnson Mandell is an award-winning multi-media journalist and author of Career Comeback--Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want.  Her work has been translated into 20 different languages, and she is a frequent expert guest and commentator on news and talk shows. She has been featured in The Wall St. Journal, on the CBS Early Show, NBC Today, CNBC, Fox Business News, Dr. Phil, Oprah.com and many other media outlets.  Lisa discusses her AOL pieces each week and interviews vital guests on the web TV show, This Week in Careers. Learn more on LisaJohnsonMandell.com.

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October 11 2011 at 5:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
James

I see that only some of you really know what it takes to run a company of whatever size. Mr. Ruby has taken a very important step by requiring his executives to work on the floor with their employees. That's a very good step. The next step should be to truly understand their clients that these same executives work on the retail floor, their call centers, to experience what GSI clients are going through. Remember that everything that makes a company successfull happens on the street and no where else. If you truly understand what your ultimate customer wants and desires, then it becomes very simple to satisfy their needs.

March 26 2010 at 5:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
TONY

ANY EFFORT IS BETTER THAN NO EFFORT, so let's see how things turn out for this company within a few months now, before judging this CEO, or any other that is wise enough to do the same thing, and especially those who do it without a "show" or cameras,...NOTHING ! WORKER BEWARE !!!...for you never know who you are working next to, and this is good for the rest of us "consumers" !

If Michael Rubin sheds his Jewish attitude of Conservatism towards how he thinks about money and places more emphasis on his people, (the employees of GSI Commerce) this will be something to see !!! And HAPPY people PRODUCE a better product.

March 23 2010 at 12:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dennis

Dave, that's how FedEx makes all their money by keeping their ground operation as independent contractors.The problem is you better hope that your route is a good one, no residential delivery and that your truck doesn't need service.You have to buy these routes from them as for Federal Express pray that you never get injured on the job.

March 23 2010 at 12:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Darrell

I was the first poster you did not here me say give away anything for nothing. I don't think you people are looking at the whole picture. If GSI was not in business their would be more jobs. I seen all the companies that he does work for if GSI was not here they would have to have their own distribution sites so more people. GSI is consolidating these jobs to make it cheaper to send out product. That is the nature of third party logistics. I also did not see the stress for saftey the man running around to get the orders picked. I can see the man falling then he would be out of a job. You applaud him for giving people jobs yes that is great but he is paying more money to the supervisors to make the company work bettter the CEO should not be coming in to make these decisions. I am not saying that what he did was not a good thing but it was jsut for show. I also see a lot of you assuming that he done thing after the show. I am just going on what was shown on the show not assuming anything. Why am I negitive because this is to make him look good. the CEO may take long hours to run the company that means he don't have good enough workers under him so he can give time to his child which is far more important than the estra hours at work. the hours at work he looses money can be made up but the time he lost with his daughter is gone forever. I also ran my own company and I left it because the time I lost from my kids. Money is nice but it is not everything. I believe that the company can do with out him for several hours a day if not he is not running the company right. I will also say just because he is making lots of money that don't mean he is doing everything right or wrong just means he is making money. Oh as far as what anyone says on here to my post it really don't mean a thing unless it is from Mr. Ruben. I would be glad to show Mr. Ruben ways to free up his time.

March 22 2010 at 10:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tomme

These shows are all Hollywood hype. They're not totally real. The people know whats going on and are just hiding it. Look outside the box and you'll see the con game being played on the viewers. The CEO's just want to toot their horn and make more money for their companies. Besides the promtions,bonuses,etc i bet all those shown dont get any compensation for being on tv and getting some of the profits the show makes.If it were me you'ld be paying me for my mug on tv.

March 22 2010 at 8:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tucci1962

Buy GSI stock and raise the value, I need the money. Mikey baby sold 350,000 worth $9,626,000 just in March!

March 22 2010 at 8:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Roger B

Hey, for a CEO you suck at your decisions. You have a lady who is working her but off to make ends and you give her son 5K for uniforms, which the sucker already got for free, as far as his Mom and he went. Why not help her out .... geeeez.

You then give a guy who wants to get married 10K for a party! Your priorities are all screwed up. You should have stayed longer out int the field, but again, you kept getting fired. Bad decisions from you ....... geeez.

March 22 2010 at 7:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mel

There is no problem at work that cannot be solved by having your boss sub for you even once.

March 22 2010 at 7:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mel's comment
rough cut charlie

nice observation and short and sweet and to the point

March 22 2010 at 7:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rough cut charlie

It's a good thing that he did what he did. I wish more "bosses" would do what he did.Might improve their understanding and appreciation of the pepole that do the larger part of making the money they,(the boss), take home.Most pepole, especially with a truly decent and supportive workplace, do like their jobs and it makes for a much more productive work environment and just as importantly, makes them go the extra mile enthusiastically which benefits everyone. Nice folks there that fired that person for grieving for their child.real quality. remember, there's enough assholes in the world, we don't need anymore.Besides isn't nice to be thought of generously on the holidays?

March 22 2010 at 7:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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