Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kendall-Jackson's "Undercover Boss:" Thoughts on a great show

Rick Tigner goes undercover in the vineyard
I hadn't watched "Undercover Boss" before Kendall-Jackson's Rick Tigner appeared, so I don't know how unusual it is for the show to be so weepy.

Tigner tears up in the very beginning, and when his identity was revealed, every featured employee save one -- the one he almost fires -- tears up also. I guess that's reality TV.

Wiping the tears aside, I liked the show, a lot, because of its unusual focus on the business side of wine.

Most TV shows about wine are insufferable. Insipid music is usually the worst part. A view of pristine vineyards, never a mechanical harvester in sight. A dramatic recitation of the challenging climate. A grizzled vintner saying the work is done in the vineyard. and the magic is found in the glass. And finally the host ooohs and aahs over the wine. With the exception of "Mondovino," I've never before seen a TV show examine an issue in wine or even say anything really interesting; they all seem like they're made by PR firms to run in airport waiting rooms.

"Undercover Boss" broke all those rules.

Tigner learning to work in the Murphy-Goode tasting room
"Undercover Boss" took us to a mobile bottling line. It took us along with a foul-mouthed delivery driver. We started in the beautiful vineyard, but instead of admiring the scenery, we saw first that most of the vineyard workers can't speak English -- I wonder how red state viewers felt about that -- and then, how hard these non-English speakers work.

Though we finished in the tasting room, the editing focused on the business of getting people to sign up for wine clubs, not the raspberries and blackberries they tasted in their Zinfandel. And, be still my beating heart, when we first saw somebody taste wine, she didn't go, "mmm;" she spit it out and took notes, like people do in the wine biz. Bravo, CBS. I don't know that any 1-hour documentary gets the whole story, but this one got way, way more of the story than I've ever seen, without the confrontational polemics of "Mondovino."

Tigner came across great in this show, which isn't surprising. I'm professionally acquainted with Tigner and have found him to be not just whip-smart, but caring. He's a good sport here, although Lucille Ball is a lot funnier when she can't keep up with an assembly line.

The show also touched on some serious issues, unflinchingly. The tasting room supervisor tells us she works 38 hours a week but is considered part-time and gets no benefits. Is that even legal? And there's an interesting twist ending: after Tigner elevates her to a full-time job and gives her benefits -- and some cash -- in the closing credits we learn she left for another job.

We also learn through her that K-J suspended its 401K program during the economic downturn. Tigner announces at the end of the show that the company is bringing it back, though I wondered if that spending will require more layoffs as a tradeoff.

The profane truck driver is set up to be the bad guy on the show; he makes the huge mistake of saying on camera, "Your goal, at the end of the day, fuck customer service and all that, it's having that truck empty." I really expected Tigner to fire him on camera.

And yet I'll bet every road warrior in the wine business knows exactly how that truck driver feels. The driver works all day but every account wants its wine delivered before 11 a.m.; they all complain if he arrives during lunch service; some keep him waiting, when he has other deliveries to make. He doesn't make his case gracefully -- doofus, don't you see those cameras? -- but his gripes are legit.

Tigner agreed to do the show to humanize K-J, and flaws are human. I wonder if the audience, having seen the passion of the guy who affixes the labels, will buy more Vintners Reserve Chardonnay.

Certainly lots of people watched the show. It won its time slot, beating the NFL Pro Bowl, drawing 13 million viewers. However, as is true of many CBS shows, the audience skewed old: the show finished only third in the 18-49 age demographic behind the Pro Bowl and ABC's "Once Upon A Time." (It did whip "The Simpsons.")

In sum, bravo to "Undercover Boss" for giving 13 million people a look beyond the romance of the wine industry. And Rick, if you're reading this, I wish the best for you and your wife.

You can watch the episode online here.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Sondra said...

I, too, watched Undercover Boss for the first time and was moved at how real Rick the boss was. plus all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of a winery. And to see how so many of the hard working people doing not so easy jobs, are Hispanic will no doubt blow Jan Brewer's small mind.

I was most impressed with how the boss could really fix some huge problems as result of doing the show - like language skills, money inequality, and acknowledgement of folks'hard work. A big surprise, I agree, when the woman upgraded to full-time left. I wonder to KJ or another winery, or reality TV.

Tony said...

I've watched eight or ten episodes of 'Undercover Boss', and the weepy emotional pull is pretty common on that show.

That said, if I were still operating as a wine distributor, I'd hire that driver. From this wholesaler's perspective, his repacked pallets were pulled and loaded sloppily. His work hours need to reflect the demands of his customers, and they didn't. A driver can't fix a poorly run warehouse or office (although the end notes informed us that the driver improved KJ's paperwork flow during his stint in the office), and I understand his complaints. I saw that his load wasn't prepped correctly, and while I wouldn't hire him for media/public relations, I'd love to have him as a driver or a warehouse foreman.

Jim Caudill said...

I think it's incredibly rare that I'm able to say, without hesitation, that of all the folks I worked with at KJ Rick Tigner is even better than he appeared on the show. He is truly one of fairest, kindest, most agreeable and comforting people I've been privileged to know. Besides Jess, he had another great mentor in Mike Haarstad, his sales leader for many years, now sadly departed. Bravo, Rick.

East Coast said...

I work in the distribution side of wine & spirits industry, the show gave an interesting insight into the wine side of the alcohol business. I think the delivery driver did not really get a fair shake of the stick. It is a tough job and people in the back office do not know what gives on the delivery side of the business, it was an eye opener for Rick, where has he been hiding for twenty years, he has to take blame for being part of a system that does not take into account the delivery end of the distribution chain. Apart from that a great hour's worth of TV and inspirational as well.

Beau said...

Amazing that it took a reality show episode for the CEO of a giant wine company to realize his employees wanted their 401k's and health benefits back.

Mike Dunne said...

Smart summation, Blake, and for a refreshing change to a blog posting the followup comments were equally insightful and fair. I was happy to see Jim's endorsement of the character of Rick Tigner, but also agree with Beau that it's pretty amazing that it took a TV reality show to get a CEO to reinstate a 401(k) and health benefits for employees.

Kjblows said...

Such BS, the truck driver like all truck drivers are Union employees. Rick couldn't fire him even if he wanted too. That driver was like 100% of all drivers:straight to the point! Rick needs to get back to basics to fix a problem like warehouse mngmt and route scheduling. There's where the company is losing money. Paying overtime every day. That and they can lower the salaries of the executives to make sure employees get benefits.

Kris Chislett said...

It felt a little scripted, to me at least, but maybe that's because I've been watching too many reality shows on MTV and I'm overly skeptical. The waterworks also seemed to come on a little more than necessary...

Anonymous said...

I know Rene, the delivery fellow and he's one of the best drivers we see in the course of a week. He's pleasant and helpful and most accommodating in providing good customer service.

He did come across badly in the show. For example, the comment about "F**k customer service" was made in reference to the office people who, as a group are the "Customer Service" department. They are often making impossible demands on the delivery crew and it was that bunch he was referring to...not, as some may have thought, his actual customers.

His chatter about "Team Rene" was not as self-centered as it seemed on the program. He views "Team Rene" as the accounts who place orders and receive the merchandise he delivers...it was not, as TV made it appear, that Rene was the center of the universe.
And having an empty truck is the result of a day's work and being able to head back to the warehouse.

As I understand it, and Rene is not alone in bitching about how his truck is loaded by the warehouse crew, often the cases are stacked without regard to the vehicle actually ever making a right or a left turn.

Many delivery drivers have issues with their co-workers. They want to do a good job and have a day free of issues such as breakage or customers complaining that the delivery has arrived outside of normal receiving hours.

In the end, though, while it's a nice gesture for the undercover boss to reward the "good children" for their good behavior, it's a bit telling about this company in particular, but many companies in general.

Lots of companies do not want to offer staff members retirement programs, health benefits, etc. The poor lady in the tasting room was working 38 hours a week and she was not considered a "full time" staff member?

The bottling line crew chief has to commute more than an hour to and from work? Is that his choice or is it that he's paid such that he cannot afford to live closer to work?

And, seriously? It's a surprise to a 20 year veteran of a wine company that the people who "toil in the vineyards" don't speak English? Really?

I'm sure the KJ brass thought this was going to be a remarkably good vehicle for "free publicity," but is it possible they've left the company liable for some sort of legal action?

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Something I left out of my summary is a general observation about big companies that didn't seem appropriate.

People at the top sympathize with the people around them, not the people far away. Tigner's immediate urge was to get Rene to work with the folks in the central office because he assumed those were the "team players."

But those are the folks who spout happy talk about teamwork because they know that's what the brass wants to hear. They're the courtiers of the modern business world, and to rise within it they have mastered not the art of productivity or innovation, but of office politics.

A great CEO will learn to realize when he has the-office-knows-all syndrome, and pay attention to the reports from the field that aren't always phrased in the way he likes to hear.

Anonymous said...

I thought the blonde was pretty hot.