Working on a fishing boat is a demanding, solitary job. So it came as no surprise that Bernt Bodal, the CEO of American Seafoods, cut a laconic figure straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie during his turn Friday on "Undercover Boss." Bodal's personal career trajectory reflects a similarly rugged path: Only after working for 13 years as a deckhand on company boats did he ascend to the executive suite.
"I am a little surprised at how little some CEOs know about their company," Bodal said in an interview with AOL Jobs. "We have a management team that grew up with this business, like me. It's very important that executives understand what makes employees tick. And it definitely gains me more respect."
But by Bodal's own admission, he wouldn't have hired himself after his performance at four of his company's workplaces. The Norwegian-born Bodal posed as Bjorn Peterson, someone who was considering immigrating to the United States as part of a reality show called "American Dreams." But his experience posing as one of his workers was closer to a nightmare. Not only did he flub basic tasks, he was on the receiving end of the most feared insult in the hyper-macho fishing industry -- he was called "feminine."
It was the unforgiving maintenance manager at a processing facility in New Bedford, Mass., who made that assessment when he sent "Bjorn" to clean the fish pit. The reason? Bjorn thought the water in the pit was too hot. The rest of Bjorn's performance left the manager, John, equally unimpressed; John told the camera that Bjorn's work is doubling the time he would need to complete the task. And the bar for success was to be particularly high for Bjorn, John warned, given his status as an immigrant. After all, John would know: He emigrated from Portugal.
Bjorn was equally at a loss during other assignments that required him to tap into skill sets for which he had no background. While working at a fishmeal plant on the Alaskan coast, he let down the foreman, Rafal, by failing to correctly measure the amount of fishmeal to be placed in each bag. Such an error leads to problems for the bottom line, Bjorn was told. And while working with a packer of surimi, a minced fish spam used to make products like crab legs, Bjorn was booted from the task of lining up the packages. He was simply not fast enough, said another worker, Susana, who noted, "you don't want to p--- off the foreman."
When placed in a situation that should be more familiar, working as a deckhand off the Alaskan coast, Bjorn succeeded in maintaining his cover. Billy, who trained him, floated the idea that Bjorn was too old for the gig, and indeed, Bodal hadn't worked on a boat since 1989. Such a 22-year lapse during middle age would take its requisite physical toll on anyone, and Bodal is no different. The job is "harder than I remember," Bjorn even added. But Billy piled on, even questioning Bjorn's technique.
The across-the-board low grades for Bjorn's performance is in direct contrast with Bodal's actual life story. He flew planes to visit several of the sites. And flying is just one of the skills he put on display during the episode. The renaissance man arrived in America in 1978, fresh from Scandinavia, without even a dime to call his own. Working as a deckhand meant facing some "very hairy moments" and regular sea temperatures of 10 below. Indeed, it was a different industry back then. "It's not comparable," he told AOL Jobs. "I used to work on a deadly boat. We would work 36 straight hours. Now it's much more regulated. We even have a professional chef on our ships. It's like comparing a mouse and an elephant." In his spare time, Bodal also developed quite the rock career, we learn. As a guitarist for the band Host, he's played alongside the likes of Roger Daltrey of The Who.
It was with the bravado of a true rock 'n' roller that Bodal climbed the ranks of American Seafoods. At the end of the '80s, and with no significant management experience, his group successfully bought out the then-owners. Leading a company with a staff of 1,400 people, annual sales of $450 million and clients like McDonald's has not changed him, he declared. "I am a fisherman who became a CEO."
And it's not just empty words. He showed himself to be anything but a cost-cutter by announcing during the reveal that he will install Internet access on all company boats. The decision will cost him $200,000, and was motivated by witnessing the solitude of living on the boats in the digital age.
Bodal also showed a solidarity with the other international members of his staff. John, the Portuguese native from the processing facility, was given $10,000 to take his family to visit his homeland. Bodal was equally charitable with Rafal, for whom he ponied up $25,000 for his family's eventual immigration, while also giving $5,000 for English lessons. The treatment was the same for Susana: a plane ticket and $5,000 so she can visit her family in Samoa, from whom she is estranged. Also of note was Bodal's decision to put up $10,000 for a charity of Billy's choosing in honor of his 72-year-old mother, who is afflicted with multiple sclerosis.
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