SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/People and Pop Culture

‘Undercover Boss’ brings changes at Modell’s

As a fixture seated behind home plate at Yankee Stadium and an indelible presence at most industry events, Mitchell Modell is one of the most familiar figures in the business of sports. So when “Undercover Boss” called in May to ask if the recognizable Modell, CEO of the sporting-goods chain that carries his name, would star in an episode of the popular series, he initially refused.

He figured some of the 3,800 employees in the 150-store chain would recognize him instantly.

Do you recognize this man? More important, did Modell’s employees recognize him?
Photo by: CRAIG BLANKENHORN / CBS
“I didn’t see how it could be done,” said Modell, sitting in his corner office 20 floors above midtown Manhattan. “They insisted that their makeup department was great, so it wouldn’t be an issue.”

With a shaved head and the addition of an oversized horseshoe moustache, Modell became “Joey Glick” and worked undercover inside a warehouse and at Modell’s Sporting Goods locations in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. The resulting tale is the season premiere of “Undercover Boss” airing Friday on CBS.

Modell told co-workers that he was off to the Olympics but instead sneaked away to spend a week filming the show in July.

“We knew right away we wanted to do an episode with him because he’s such a big personality,” said Scott Cooper, co-executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning show. “We look for someone with energy and passion. I’ve been doing this for three seasons, and he’s one of the most passionate bosses we’ve had — because it’s his family business.”

The 'Undercover Boss'

Mitchell Modell
CEO, Modell’s Sporting Goods


Age: 58
Family: Married with two daughters
Education: B.S., Boston University School of Management, 1976
Career: Began at Modell’s in 1977; became co-president in 1986 with now deceased brother Michael
Modell’s Sporting Goods: Founded in 1889 by Morris A. Modell on Cortlandt Street in lower Manhattan. Currently, there are more than 150 stores and 3,800 employees throughout the Northeast

Sources: Modells.com, public filings

To say that “Undercover Boss” had a cathartic effect on the CEO is like saying the Yankees wear pinstripes. The week after shooting “Undercover Boss,” Modell had his direct reports (undisguised) working in the same warehouse/distribution center in which he labored.

“This has already helped us change the company,” said Modell. “As CEO, one of the things you always wonder about is what your associates [employees] are really thinking and what their days are like. It was a great education.”

During his week as Joey Glick, Modell drove forklifts in the warehouse, ran a cash register, and was a stock boy, sales associate and shipping clerk. No employee guessed that they were working alongside the boss, though Modell’s fake mustache had some problems during a 100-degree day in the warehouse.

“My body was aching,” Modell said. “That physical labor — I had no idea how good a shape you had to be in to do that every day.”

Modell joins a sizable list of sports executives who have appeared on “Undercover Boss” since it debuted in 2010, after Super Bowl XLIV. The others are GSI Commerce CEO Michael Rubin; NASCAR CMO Steve Phelps; Churchill Downs COO Bill Carstanjen; Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts; TaylorMade Golf CEO Mark King; and Lucky Strike Lanes CEO and co-founder Steven Foster.

As dependable as the sunrise is the conclusion of “Undercover Boss,” with the “co-worker” being revealed to be the boss, after which the most devoted and deserving employees are rewarded. While loath to discuss any show specifics, the hard-boiled Modell admits he was touched.

“Seeing our associates’ dedication, despite some of their hardships, that was a real eye-opener,” he said. “The fact you can make a difference in an individual’s life who is so caring about the company and make a difference in how we run the company was priceless.”

After the CEO’s stint on “Undercover Boss,” Modell’s Sporting Goods has installed a bevy of reforms. They include better processes for recognizing and promoting talented employees; streamlining shipping and distribution to stores; adding workers during peak warehouse hours; reducing tasks for sales associates, which allows them to spend more time with customers; and taking some of the workload off store managers and assistant managers to prevent burnout.

Thankful for the lessons learned, Modell is helping to market the show by having his sales associates wear “Undercover Boss” T-shirts and by posting ads in stores and on 115 trucks. “I feel like we owe them,” he said.

Modell’s is opening new stores this month in the Bronx, Long Island and downtown Manhattan. If they are run more efficiently, perhaps it’s because a reality show served as their McKinsey & Co.

“I’ve told my friends who run businesses that they need to find a way to do this,” Modell said. “As CEO, everything gets filtered. You never see the frustrations at different levels of your organization. Being a family business, we say that we want to treat our people like family, but were we? This showed us.”
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