Roto-Rooter President, COO Rick Arquilla on Management and Engagement

By Roy Saunderson
January 28, 2011

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Rick Arquilla has been the president and chief operating officer of Roto-Rooter Group, North America’s largest provider of plumbing repair and drain services, since 1999. Incentive online columnist Roy Saunderson, founder and president of Recognition Management Institute, spoke with Arquilla recently about his experience on CBS’ Undercover Boss TV show last April, his leadership style, and employee and customer engagement. As COO, he spends much of his time at branch locations working with general managers and regional managers to ensure that Roto-Rooter is providing top-quality plumbing and drain services.

Roy Saunderson: Rick, what was the catalyst that made you decide to go on Undercover Boss?

Rick Arquilla: Well, the obvious was that it could be great PR for the company, but I quickly got past that. For me, it was getting a chance to get out from behind my title and be “Hank Denman” [his undercover identity in the show]. I think we all fancy ourselves as leaders who can engage anyone, have people relax, and it’s just two people talking, where you can say, “Go ahead, tell me everything.”

RS: What was the most surprising thing you encountered in your Undercover Boss experience?

RA: Probably the fact that it wasn’t just me going undercover, but the show was uncovering me, as well. As each day progressed, I was reflecting on the company as well as myself as a person and business leader. You’re doing a lot of soul-searching, and the cameras are running—you’re peeling back the onion on national TV.

It was easy to think, "Boss goes undercover, boss learns things about the company, boss implements what he learns, and we all hold hands and sing a song at the end." It was a lot more than that. I never thought I would reveal so much of myself in front of a national viewing audience.

RS: What permanent changes have occurred at Roto-Rooter as a result of the show?

RA: The last thing we wanted was to say we had our 15 minutes of fame and once the cameras were turned off, it’s business as usual. We have implemented some companywide programs as a result of Undercover Boss. A couple of them are near and dear to me. The first is a leadership program that allows us to tap into our talent on the front lines.

Historically, we’ve done a great job of getting frontline supervisors on the radar and tracking their performance. But we really didn’t have a good mechanism to get frontline employees on the radar. It was loud and clear to me that everybody I was with on Undercover Boss wanted to climb the ladder, get ahead, etc. So the frontline leadership program is now alive and well.

The second initiative rolled out is that for new Roto-Rooter customers, the technician that first served a customer will be that customer’s technician for as long as he or she is an employee of Roto-Rooter. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re trying to create connectivity with customers, we formalize this.

If someone mistreats the customer, if someone don’t represent the company well, the company has the right to reassign the customer to another technician. But the point is if someone has been with the company a few years, he or she should have a very loyal customer base.

RS: Describe your leadership philosophy. 

RA: It’s not about creating mission, vision, and value statements. It’s about watch me, watch my behavior. Watch what I do and decide what kind of leader I am.

At Roto-Rooter, we never wanted to say, “Drink the Kool-Aid and recite all the corporate propaganda we’ve forced you to read.” If you can observe how company leaders behave, you’ll form your opinion of what we do and how we lead without us making you drink the Kool-Aid.

RS: How do you identify leaders at Roto-Rooter?

RA: If somebody comes aboard for the paycheck, that’s not what retains and inspires. It’s more than a paycheck, and ultimately leaders create some purpose, passion, vision, or cause to rally around. We’re going to aim for somebody that gets turned on and excited.

The leader creates that purpose and then stands back and gets out of the way. The leader doesn’t over-manage or say we all know where we’re going. And if you’ve hired talented people, they’re their own harshest critics. They’re much harder on themselves than the boss ever would be on them, so get out of their way and let them achieve.

RS: What kinds of employee incentive and recognition programs do you have?

RA: For starters, our frontline employees are incentive based from a compensation standpoint. We are a little counter-culture to the plumbing industry. I would say most plumbing companies are hourly based organizations.

Now, obviously you have to make sure your people are selling the right work for the right reasons and not allowing the commission system to create bad behavior. But without dwelling on the pros and cons, we’re fans of commission-based compensation versus everyone being paid the same.

We also do some of the basic incentives and recognition strategies, whether it’s an employee of the month contest, branch of the year, region of the year, mentions in our newsletters. There’s tremendous competition for branch of the year and region of the year. Having started in the company as a regional vice president, it didn’t sit well if you thought your region was deserving of region of the year and you lost out, not because you didn’t win, but because of the fanfare you receive.

RS: Do any of these incentives and recognition programs change for independent contractors and your franchise operations?

RA: They do. There’s enough communication and interaction between company-owned branches, the independent contractors, and the franchises for us to mimic what is effective internally. And if we have a particular product or service to showcase or promote, we’ll use an incentive or recognition program around the new offering—or one that has fallen asleep a little bit.

RS: How do you manage recognition globally, with some of your expanding operations, such as those in the Asia-Pacific region, and the cultural differences that can arise?

RA: We lean heavily on the local ownership, the master franchise owners, on their understanding of cultural differences and motivational factors that come into play.

We also learned that outside of the United States and Canada, the Roto-Rooter brand doesn’t mean as much and it’s more about our practices and how we run a plumbing business. We can’t just hang out our shingle saying we’re Roto-Rooter in Indonesia, and the phone rings off the hook.

RS: How do you continue to improve going forward, particularly in an economy like this?

RA: If you look at our organization, we’re all about the front lines—thousands of frontline employees and our senior management’s foremost concern is what we are doing to create an environment where can hang on or prosper. And I’m proud to say that during this tough economic time our frontline employees are actually enjoying a little bit of a pay increase, which feels really darn good.

But beyond this short-term issue of a down economy, I think if you believe heart of hearts in what you do, you shouldn’t change much through good and bad economic times. How you treat people shouldn’t change much through good and bad.

We all get challenged, but I don’t think how you treat an employee should change through a downturn. Fair-weather leaders are fun to be around and tell jokes when the sky is blue, when the grass is green, when everything is great because performance is good, but they’re just miserable to be around during tough times. It’s during those tough times that really defines what type of leader you are.

What are you all about when it’s difficult? How do you treat your employees when things are difficult? And what kinds of decisions do you make when it’s difficult? I said it on the show: this is a great time for Roto-Rooter to define who we are and learn what we’re really all about. 

Incentive columnist Roy Saunderson is author of Giving the Recognition Way and president of the Recognition Management Institute, www.realrecognition.com, which consults companies on improving employee motivation that leads to increased productivity and profit. He can be reached at roysaunderson@realrecognition.com. Also, tune in every Tuesday to his radio show, Real Recognition Radio
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