There aren't many adults in the United States who can't recall exactly where they were when the planes flew into the World Trade Center on 9/11. President and CEO of ABM Industries Henrik Slipsager, this week's Undercover Boss, was in San Francisco, desperately trying to contact his family at home in New York. Two of the workers who participated with him in an 'Undercover Boss' segment were at Ground Zero.
Talking to them about their experiences on that fateful day was the hardest part of Slipsager's 'Undercover Boss' experience. "No matter who you are, it's in your system," he said. "It's digging deep, and it hurts. The most difficult part was not being able to reveal my identity and ask them the questions I really wanted to ask."
A total of 17 ABM employees died on 9/11. Hundreds worked at the World Trade Center when the towers fell, but some were on different shifts.
The employees who were there were given time to recover from the experience, and when they were ready, ABM found them work in other buildings. Slipsager worked with Larry a freight elevator operator who had been with ABM for 26 years, and was cleaning outside the World Trade Center when the planes hit. He said he was grateful for how they were treated by ABM during such a difficult and emotional time.
In the end, when Slipsager revealed his identity, he told Larry that ABM would have a reunion of all the employees who were who were at the World Trade Center on that fateful day. Larry had been with ABM for 37 years, and Slipsager also gave him and his wife an all expenses paid vacation.
Maria, another employee with whom Slipsager worked on janitorial duties, lost her 27-year-old nephew on 9/11. He was a foreman for ABM and was working on the 96th floor of one of the towers.
Who wears the pants?
Although Slipsager was not great at cleaning the toilets and glass walls under Maria's supervision, he found great dignity and commitment in the way she and other employees performed their housekeeping duties--even in the obligatory white dress, which she said was impractical for cleaning.
"My goal for being an Undercover Boss, although I'm quite shy, was to show how proud and focused our employees are, and what a good job they're doing," he said. "I believe we accomplished that."
Slipsager also accomplished a uniform change for Maria that included pants and a shirt instead instead of the white dress. When Maria met Slipsager as the CEO, he also told her that ABM was going to dedicate 17 granite pavers at ground zero, with the names of their employees who perished in the attacks, and that ABM would also donate $25,000 to a 9/11 fund in the name of Maria's nephew.
So what, exactly is ABM?
ABM may not be a household name, but chances are you've been in a building that's been serviced by them. ABM stands for American Building Maintenance, which was founded more than 100 years ago and has over 90,000 employees. It's one of the nation's largest facilities services contractors, offering janitorial, engineering, parking and security services for thousands of clients. Slipsager, a Danish immigrant, has been President and CEO since the year 2000.
His cover was that he was an immigrant from Holland (let's face it, few Americans can tell a Danish accent from a Dutch accent) competing with another, younger candidate for a job in the United States. His disguise left a lasting impression: He had "virgin" hair that had never been dyed before, and when he tried to wash the color out, it remained orange for months.
Slipsager's first job for the 'Undercover Boss' episode was at the Tampa airport, working as shuttle operator for Ampco System Parking, a division of ABM. He was too slow at helping people with their luggage, and too fast driving. When he cursed his own ineptitude on the shuttles speaker for all the passengers to hear, that was the final straw for Kenny, the driver who was training him. Slipsager was promptly fired from his duties. "It was brutal," he said. "But Kenny is such a good kid."
Good enough to have ABM pay for his advanced education, which he said he'd been working on every day, and to enter their management training program. Previously, he'd thought he might want to become a fire fighter, but now he's changed his major to business.
The most dangerous job to date
Next up was the most dangerous job an Undercover Boss has had to do yet. Slipsager worked with Peter, a commercial window washing supervisor, a Polish immigrant from Krakow, who required him to attach scaffold cables to the top of a building and wear a harness to go up many floors to clean windows. This was one of Slipsager's worst nightmares, since he's afraid of heights. "If you look closely, you'll see my left hand squeezing the scaffold -- it was cramping I was holding on so tight," he said. When Peter told him they had to go higher, Slipsager said he'd had enough and ended that assignment right then and there.
But not before Peter revealed that he had a wife and three children, one of them a seven year old son with with cerebral palsy. Peter said he was having trouble paying for the therapy his son needed. When the two men met up again in the finale, Slipsager appointed Peter to a safety committee, for which he'd be paid extra, offered to send Peter's family on a vacation, and also made a contribution to his son's therapy, which enable him to have twice as much as before.
Slipsager is sure that when people see how brave, dedicated and proud ABM workers are, they will have a new found respect and appreciation of the janitors, cleaners and other service workers that make their lives more comfortable on a daily basis. "People's perception changes when they see these people have interesting lives and names," he said. "'Undercover Boss' gave me the opportunity to show this."