CSNews Exclusive: 7-Eleven CEO's Appearance on 'Undercover Boss' has Lasting Influence

NEW YORK -- A week or so after Joe DePinto's February appearance on CBS' "Undercover Boss," in which he worked incognito in several stores, at one of the chain's bakeries and on a delivery truck, Jim Brown, CEO of 7-Eleven Stores in Oklahoma, which is not affiliated with 7-Eleven Inc., told his local newspaper the program was "like an hour-long commercial," though interesting to watch.

7-Eleven's franchisees contacted by CSNews Online had a more enthusiastic response to the program, in which DePinto worked with coffee hostess Dolores Bisangni during rush hour at a high-traffic store, drove with Igor Finkler delivering fresh foods, and worked an overnight shift with a young employee who did not look at his job as a step on a career path.

Joe Rossi, president of the Franchise Owners Association of Chicagoland, thought DePinto "handled himself very well. Considering the size of the company, it was nice for everyone to see his face and his personality."

Rossi characterized the appearance as beneficial to 7-Eleven and its operators. "People got a feel for how hard all of the employees work in different areas of the company," he said. "Additionally, for our customers to see the commissary and the fresh product being delivered to stores daily was a subtle but powerful message regarding our foodservice operation. Joe's compassion with Dolores' [kidney ailment] was also great and one of the key things my customers have commented on."

Like other franchisees contacted, Rossi believes "Undercover Boss" accurately spotlighted 7-Eleven stores, especially in the way each store has its own personality driven by associates on the front line.

The challenges and opportunities of being a 7-Eleven operator were truthfully portrayed, Rossi said. "The issue with overnight people not feeling like they have a future plays into the long-held stereotype of the convenience store clerk," he said. "This is changing as clerks become a great breeding ground for future store operators and corporate staff."

Mike Triantafellou, president and CEO of Gibsonia, Pa.-based Handee Marts Inc., a 7-Eleven licensee (now called Domestic Master Franchisee) for 41 years, said the number of inquiries the chain has received from potential franchisees increased dramatically following "Undercover Boss."

Triantafellou believes the show portrayed the company's and CEO's commitment to "servant leadership" accurately and positively. "After watching the first two episodes with the CEOs of Waste Management and Hooters, and seeing some of the negative policies and actions that were portrayed, I was delighted to see that 7-Eleven's hour was filled with positives and focused on our people," the retailer noted.

DePinto backed up his words and mission with the generosity he showed the employees featured, he added. "It was quite apparent to me that his appearance was not for fame, fortune or publicity, but based on a true desire to experience a small part of what our franchisees and employees live through daily and to take those learnings back to Dallas to further improve an already outstanding organization. A big challenge that was evident was to make sure policies that we believe are already established are properly communicated throughout the organization and executed."

Consumers unaware of the chain's fresh food and coffee offerings will now consider stopping at 7-Eleven, Triantafellou said. "The show also helped improve the marketability to potential employees for our entire industry."

Bill Huffman, president of the Columbia Pacific Franchisee Owners Association, told CSNews Online DePinto appeared to be personally moved by the 7-Eleven employees he met. "However, in the segment about throwing away doughnuts, there was some blame-shifting going on," he added.

Still, the show helped cement the image of 7-Eleven as an American icon, Huffman said. "In my 31 years of running 7-Eleven stores, the only time I have had customers talk to me more about a nationwide event involving our stores is when we were very involved with Jerry Lewis during the Labor Day Telethon -- that was a long time ago," he said. "In today's economic times, the American public gets a charge out of seeing the CEO screw up the coffee. I must have had 50 customers ask me why Joe didn't visit our stores. As recently as Tuesday of [last] week people have brought up 7-Eleven and 'Undercover Boss.' I have a young woman who is my coffee host at one of my stores. After watching the episode, she understood the importance of her position."

However, the episode didn't completely capture the experience of many 7-Eleven franchisees and store employees, Huffman said. "The stores Joe worked in were high-volume stores. The Long Island store that sells 2,500 cups of coffee a day does more coffee volume in a week than my two stores do in a month."

Many franchisees still run a "mom and pop" operation, he noted, with little room for associates to advance. "But having said that, my field consultant started her career as a part-time clerk in a franchised store, so advancement can happen. To operate a store using the 7-Eleven business system requires more labor hours than a lower-volume store can afford. Had the filming been done in a lower volume store America might be asking, 'How can one person do all that?'"

Related News:

7-Eleven's DePinto on Undercover Mission for CBS Reality Series

7-Eleven Scores $1.5 Million-Plus on "Undercover Boss" Media Value
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