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DALLAS -- When Joe DePinto finds his early morning inbox packed with foreign emails, the chief executive of 7-Eleven Inc. knows his segment of "Undercover Boss" has aired in some distant land, he told The Dallas Morning News.
"Most mornings when I wake up, there will be 12, 15 e-mails waiting in my inbox. The mornings that I've got 40 or 50, I know it's shown someplace else, like Korea, England or Australia," he said.
It's a phenomenon the 48-year-old CEO couldn't have imagined when his marketing staff convinced him to do a pilot episode of the untested reality show a little more than a year ago. He initially told 7-Eleven chief marketing officer Rita Bargerhuff that she was nuts to suggest it.
But on Feb. 21, 2010, the world saw a scruffy-faced DePinto, aka Danny Rossi, put on an orange 7-Eleven smock and handle rush hour at a busy store on Long Island, try his hand at making doughnuts in the corporate bakery in Baltimore and distribute fresh food and sandwiches on the night shift in North Texas. He let coffee puddle onto the floor. He became Lucy on the bakery conveyor line. He nearly fell on his face wheeling boxes. And he ended each day absolutely exhausted.
"Seven days nonstop," DePinto recalled. "I got a dose of three different shifts. It brought me back. I've had a job since I was 13 years old. I started out as a paperboy, worked a myriad of manufacturing, hotel, all kinds of different jobs."
Since its debut, DePinto's "Undercover Boss" segment has rerun twice on CBS and been picked up all over the world. His segment helped make "Undercover Boss" the most popular new TV show of the 2009-10 season. CBS recently renewed the reality series for a third go.
"Joe was a fantastic boss," said Eli Holzman, executive producer of "Undercover Boss" at Studio Lambert. "He threw himself into his undercover mission like the military veteran that he is and embraced the opportunity to see his company through a different lens. His gift of a 7-Eleven franchise to truck driver Igor Finkler ranks as one of the most generous rewards ever bestowed by an Undercover Boss."
DePinto was so moved by North Texas deliveryman Finkler's patriotic spirit and work ethic that he waived 7-Eleven's $150,000 franchise fee for a store that opened in May.
Now a year later, The Dallas Morning News asked DePinto what have been the lasting effects of going undercover. For one thing, he said he's still trying to figure out how to get more unused food into the hands of the needy.
When an employee tossed out doughnuts at the end of the shift in Shirley, N.Y., on the show, DePinto came unglued. He didn't realize that the store couldn't ship its leftovers to the local food bank because they had been handled.
"That to me is a disconnect," he said. "We've got food that we throw away at night. It needs to go to the needy. If we can get it figured out, it will be a very big deal."
7-Eleven also has created a program that identifies people who are ready for advancement and pinpoints the ones who need extra training. "We have a whole pipeline of talent here. We're going to tap into it," DePinto told the newspaper.
There's a greater emphasis on maintaining and servicing the stores too -- a big issue for franchisees. "We've gotten significantly better at it, but we still have a long way to go," he said. "The company, for financial reasons, had to make some tough decisions to stay afloat."
Now that the company is financially sound, DePinto said he plans to go full-throttle on store upgrades. There's also an emphasis on streamlining processes, so that employees and franchisees don't get bogged down in corporate red tape.
"I thought changing the culture would happen much quicker," he said. "We have about 20,000 employees, and if you include our franchisees, it's over 200,000. Changing the culture in a company with that kind of DNA, it takes a long time. But we're on a great trajectory."
So what was the biggest lesson DePinto learned from "Undercover Boss?"
It wasn't so much an epiphany as a reality check, he said.
"Our people don't have a lot of major needs. They want to be appreciated for what they do and recognized for their performance. I always knew that, but it can easily get away from you in the heat of daily business," he said. "We have hardworking people out there. I realized that when I was standing up all day. I was beat at the end of the day. Oh, man, my knees were sore. I don't do a lot of that anymore…And yeah, I like that title next to my name."