MOUNT VERNON — One of Mount Vernon’s own is about to take the hot seat on a smash hit television show. Rick Arquilla, Mount Vernon High School Class of 1971, will be featured on “Undercover Boss,” the CBS reality show which takes corporate leaders and plants them, under an assumed name, as an entry-level employee.
Arquilla was born here and grew up in the family home on Riley Street, on the south side of town. Without any grand ambitions in mind, he went off to college because his parents said it would be a good idea. The only bad part was that he lost touch with many friends.
“I hope some of those long-lost friends reconnect with me once they see this,” Arquilla said
When he hit the job world, he knew that working in the service industry would suit his personality better than most other fields, so he started out at Chemlawn and throughout the 1980s worked his way up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming a vice president.
Moving to a vice president position at Roto-Rooter’s corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, Arquilla hit his stride, with further promotions moving into his current position as chief operating officer. In his years at the drain service giant, he has observed almost every kind of job the company can do.
But he hadn’t actually performed those jobs, at least not until “Undercover Boss” came along and talked with Roto-Rooter’s public relations manager. The show’s network, CBS, was interested in having Roto-Rooter participate, but Arquilla wanted to make sure this wasn’t just another crass reality show, putting down employees with secret cameras or some such thing. When they told him that he’s the only one who might get put on the spot, Arquilla agreed to do the show.
“I did it with the understanding that if anybody’s going to get roughed up, it’s me,” Arquilla said.
What he experienced will be featured Sunday night at 9 on CBS, as the Roto-Rooter episode of “Undercover Boss” is aired for the first time.
Arquilla posed as “Hank Denman,” using a made-up surname and his college nickname for a given name, so that he’d always remember to respond to it. A film crew was present, ostensibly filming a documentary about the difficulties encountered by entry level employees. “Hank” worked at various company locations, including Des Moines, Chicago and New Orleans, spending several days at each.
Instead of observing from the sidelines, now Arquilla found himself for the first time tackling the company’s most demanding jobs: Cutting roots in pipes, running a camera through drains to look for problem spots, operating a high-pressure water jet, welding, even manning the corporate call center to field calls from customers.
All of these tasks proved both physically and mentally tougher than Arquilla expected. And one was far nastier than anything else he’s ever encountered: Pumping out a grease trap.
“On the disgusting scale, it clearly trumps cleaning sewers,” Arquilla said.
Experiencing these jobs shoulder-to-shoulder with other workers gave the boss a new appreciation for what his employees do.
“Seeing it through the eyes of the people on the front line gave me a great admiration for them and the work they do,” Arquilla said, pointing out that these people, no matter what else is going on in their lives, are constantly dealing with the public. They have no place to hide if they’re having a bad day, but must instead soldier on with the job.
Arquilla said that he went into it hoping he had a good connection with the company, and he said that he experienced no shocking scenes or revelations from his work force, but the experience did make him feel more connected. While he said that he’s not sure every boss could handle going to work on the front lines of a corporation, he said that it probably wouldn’t hurt them to give it a try.
As 2010 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of Roto-Rooter, Arquilla said that the show puts things in their proper perspective:
“I think the front line employees are the stars,” he said.