BELFOR CEO Sheldon Yellen probably has the most caring and supportive employees ever featured on 'Undercover Boss--and it appears he gave them more compensation in the end than has ever been given away before. BELFOR may be comprised of roofers, painters, plumbers, cleaners and carpenters, but it's important to note that BELFOR is the world's largest disaster restoration company. Employees are dealing with people who have experienced great (often tragic) loss, on a daily basis.
BELFOR employees go into people's homes to erase signs of damage and sometimes death. "It's very emotional," says Yellen. "Our people are trained to deal with people who have suffered great loss. Employees spend as much time dealing with emotion as they do with construction."
Yellen has been building the company since 1984, and BELFOR now operates in 29 countries, providing post disaster relief and reconstruction services after fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters. About 6,000 employees assist both residential and commercial customers with losses from the small, like leaky roofs, to the major, like those caused by Hurricane Katrina. BELFOR employees are about to have their work cut out for them in Australia (as soon as the flood waters subside) -- but in the meantime, Yellen tried his hand at some lesser jobs for 'Undercover Boss.'
Into the trenches
For his first job, Yellen worked with Joe, a demolition supervisor on a house in Norfolk, Va., where where roof leaks had damaged the walls and ceiling. Yellen got a taste of dealing with death when he had to remove a animal that fell down through the ceiling and expired after it couldn't get out of the wall. To get the job done, they started by removing the homeowner's furniture and other belongings, and Yellen wasn't as careful as Joe would have liked.
Yellen was surprised to learn that Joe is 50 years old and the father of two, and has to do side jobs to make ends meet. This reminded him of his own experiences growing up poor and having to work 40 hours a week, starting at age 11, to help support his family so they could rise above the poverty line.
To keep Joe and his sons from having to suffer like that, when Yellen revealed his identity as CEO he promoted Joe to project manager so he wouldn't have to do any more work on the side. Joe also received $10,000 to help him with his debts, and was advanced $10,000 on future commissions.
Restoration hardware is hard work
Next stop was Denver, Colo., where Yellen worked with Drew, a restoration carpenter. "I was pitiful," he remembers, explaining how the fake glasses he was wearing obstructed his vision and made him unable to use the electric drill properly. Not only that, but hanging dry wall was much more difficult than he'd anticipated. Drew didn't feel like the two of them were connecting as a team and let Yellen go so he could finish the job by himself, but not before he revealed that he had an MBA and a mountain of debt to show for it.
Later, when the two met again at company headquarters, Yellen did his best to help Drew with that debt by giving him a check for $15,000 and referring Drew to the marketing department for a possible promotion and raise.
Yellen did a better job in Indianapolis, Ind., where he worked as a cleaning technician removing smoke damage -- although his attempts to follow his mentor's jovial customer interaction fell flat. He made the mistake of asking which of the two white-haired women in the house was the mother and which was the daughter -- never a good idea with females.
Despite his faux pas, Brenda, his supervisor, felt at ease enough with him to confide that she used to be homeless, has been working full-time since she was 15, and never got a high school degree. Writing has always been a challenge for her. This information brought Yellen to tears, and when the time came, he gave her $10,000 for an education fund for her grandchildren, a $15,000 bonus check, and promised her special help with her water damage certification.
In a tight squeeze
Last but not least, Yellen worked with Jen, a water technician in Chesapeake, Va., to repair water damage. Part of the job required slithering through an extremely tight crawl space; not only did Yellen put his mask on upside down, but his complaining also drew an admonition from his female supervisor to "buck up!"
She told Yellen that she started as a cleaning technician and was "promoted" to a water technician nearly a year ago, but got no increase in pay because "corporate says there's a raise freeze." "I put that pay freeze in place to protect everyone -- to save their jobs and to keep from having to lay anyone off during the economic crisis," Yellen told AOL. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone."
He was so moved at the time that he revealed his true identity right then and there and told her she would get that raise. He later made good on his promise, giving her a retroactive raise, a week's paid vacation, and a check for $15,000.
Yellen began his 'Undercover Boss' journey at the encouragement of his son, who watched the show for the first time with his roommates and immediately called his dad to tell him he needed to get involved. Yellen did, and he has no regrets.
Although he was humbled, Yellen says he couldn't be prouder of the passion of his employees. "I was so impressed by their customer awareness," he said. "These are people with lives and challenges of their own, yet they go to work with an attitude of 'my problems are my problems, and I have to leave them at home and I have to give the homeowner everything I've got.'"