No industry has been exempt from the effects of the recession. Even golf. Mark King, the CEO of the world's largest manufacturer of high-performance golf equipment, TaylorMade, made that point bluntly during his appearance Friday on "Undercover Boss." "It's a challenge to get shrinking numbers to spend more money on a toy they don't need," he said.
His candor was refreshing and a stark contrast to the popular image of the chief executive who always spins. At one point, King was even moved to out himself, feeling the "Undercover Boss" shtick was too dishonest when one of his employees, a woman named Teresa, began pouring her heart out. Working out of the company's distribution-return center in Piedmont, S.C., Teresa told "Al Bauer," who was King pretending to be a second-chances reality show contestant, about what was on her bucket list. (She dreams of traveling to Australia, but thinks it's really just a fantasy.)
Her earnestness, coupled with the revelation that Teresa is also 53 years old and single like King, moved him. (He also has two daughters.) "I didn't want to play this thing any longer," he said on the episode. In an interview with AOL Jobs, he said that the plan to come forward was made in concert with CBS producers.
The moment was a rare emotional high point for the show. Bosses have come forward prematurely before: Hotelier Stephen Cloobeck angrily revealed himself to a worker in his call center during this season's premiere. But King's motivation seemed to be guilt -- he seemed to genuinely connect with Teresa.
With his cover gone -- he'd claimed that he had to rake leaves to make ends meet -- he also was free to take off his earring. "You look good either way," Teresa approvingly said. She had already spoken to the camera about her crush on him, saying she was excited to find out that this guy was the same age.
CEO Tells The Truth -- About Everything
King was frank with every employee, in all his site visits, including one at the quality control center in Westminster, S.C. "Kill me now," he said when assessing the amount of golf balls and other items that had to be checked. Indeed, he couldn't keep up with a female employee, Caley, who checked three balls at a time to maintain the the rate of 5,000 a day. When speaking about the relationship between the corporate suite and the factory floor, he seemed honest. "This job is more demanding than a job sitting behind a desk." Of course, this reality is underscored in every episode of the CBS series, now in its third season. King is just the rare boss who acknowledged it.
So it wasn't surprising, then, that King didn't put up a fight when he was recognized on the floor of the company's Carlsbad, Calif., club-manufacturing plant, which -- with $8 million a year in sales -- is the company's bread and butter. Here King was working with Christian, 19, and no one in the division was over 25. And so the prospect of this middle-aged man wanting a job making clubs seemed a bit unlikely. When crew members asked, "Are you Mark King?," he immediately polled the room to find out how many on the floor thought so. When it turned out that everyone did, he didn't even try to deny it.
A Little Too Good To Be True?
But producers probably didn't expect his identity to remain secret. King maintains a considerable public profile, having already appeared on "The Apprentice." This appearance for King, which CBS shrewdly aired on the weekend it broadcasts the Masters Tournament from Georgia, culminated in a reveal that stretched the limits of belief.
When Christian at the Carlsbad club-manufacturing plant told King that he'd given up a college scholarship so that his cancer-stricken mother could stay on his health insurance plan, King said that he was deeply moved. So during the reveal, King offered Christian a $10,000 check to cover medical expenses and a promise to cover his college tuition. Christian will also get another $15,000 to make up for the time that he will miss at work as he dives into his new life.
Come again? Yes, King was urging Christian to work as a part-timer even as King maintains his full-time pay scale. There was a hardly a moment when King came off as anything but genuine, and doubtless this decision came from the same place. But surely this can't be his strategy for surviving a time when his industry is shrinking?
In speaking to AOL Jobs, he explained why he's able to keep cool. "Historically, since recessions come and go, golf is last to go, and the first to recover," he said. "Because it's a pastime; it's not as expensive as buying a car or a vacation. People still find a way to play golf."
He would know. He's been with the company for 30 years, having started as a salesman when TaylorMade was a three-person startup. Now it counts 2,000 employees and does $1.2 billion a year in business. So his pledge at the show's end to restore the personal touch to the business is believable. Indeed, he also announced that he plans to add more supervisors to nightshifts, as well as a reimbursement policy for employees who incur expenses traveling for the company. The company will also stop throwing out damaged shoes, and will donate them as part of an initiative to bring golf to the inner city.
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