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Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

By Carol Tice

Last night, the CEO of global disaster-recovery firm Belfor was featured on CBS' Undercover Boss, hanging drywall and crawling under homes incognito. What did he learn from his time in the trenches? Sheldon Yellen debriefs with BNET's Carol Tice.

Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

Back on the Low End of the Totem Pole

Back on the Low End of the Totem Pole

Back on the Low End of the Totem Pole

BNET: Why did you want to go on Undercover Boss?

Yellen: I first heard about the show when my college-age son watched it. He said, "You'd be perfect on that show." I started watching it, and have to admit I liked it. When the opportunity presented itself, I needed a little convincing, because I usually quietly do what I do behind the scenes.

I started out in the company in 1984 at the low end of the totem pole, doing temporary repairs to fire-burned roofs, putting up plywood. It was a way to go back to my roots, to go into the field. We care so deeply about our people -- I wanted to test whether the culture I've worked so hard for is really there.

Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

Sheldon Yellen as Tom Kelly

Sheldon Yellen as Tom Kelly

Sheldon Yellen as Tom Kelly

BNET: What was your disguise? Did anyone recognize you?

Yellen: I grew a beard for the first time in my life. I had see-through fake glasses I wore, and then they gave me a wig that gave me more hair than I've had since I was 12 years old. For a guy with three hair transplants, it was exciting. I was wearing a blue-collar Belfor uniform.

I was worried I would be recognized, because I spend a lot of time traveling around the world visiting our offices. But no one did -- and one of the guys I worked with, I had lunch with a year and a half ago. So I guess it worked.

Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

'I'm Not Supposed to Do This, But ...'

'I'm Not Supposed to Do This, But ...'

'I'm Not Supposed to Do This, But ...'

BNET: You blew your own cover with one employee, though -- what happened there?

Yellen: I was listening to one worker, Jen, tell me about how the night before she was at her house trying to pay the bills and having to decide which bills to pay, because she couldn't pay them all. She had been promoted 10 or 11 months earlier, but didn't get a raise because I had put in place, with the '08 recession, an "increase freeze" across the company. So she is working on call -- where you get a call at 1 a.m. and have to get out of bed and go to work -- and she's not getting a raise.

We were in a tight crawlspace, and I was listening to her passion for the company, her commitment, and she said, "I don't think anybody at corporate would know who I am." I lost it. I thought, "You're doing everything I just witnessed, and you don't feel somebody at corporate appreciates you? Shame on me." I took off my hat and glasses and wig and said, "Listen, I'm not supposed to do this, but I'm not Tom Kelly, I'm Sheldon Yellen of Belfor." I started hugging her and crying.

Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

At Drywall, This Guy's Worthless

At Drywall, This Guy's Worthless

At Drywall, This Guy's Worthless

BNET: What jobs did you do, and how was your performance?

Yellen: I started working demolition with Joe. He called me a newbie, and as a newbie initiation, he had me remove a dead animal -- probably there for 10 years. I was a little taken aback.

Then I went out to Denver and was probably as bad as anybody. I was hanging drywall on a ceiling with Drew, and he says, "Screw in these screws." I couldn't see with the fake glasses to get the drill bit on. He's dripping sweat, holding the drywall up, and I can't see. He was mumbling, "This guy's worthless." I was just terrible.

With Brenda in Indianapolis -- this is where I was really a genius. The clients were two elderly women, and she was making them feel comfortable. I wanted to get into the conversation, so I said, "Which one of you is the mom and which is the daughter?" And the daughter got all offended. Brenda takes me aside and says, "You don't ask women something like that!" I realized, oh my God, I'd better shut up.

Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

Bringing Compassion to Every Site

Bringing Compassion to Every Site

Bringing Compassion to Every Site

BNET: What did you learn about your workers?

Yellen: Our people are so incredible. They don't just put a nail in a piece of wood or hang drywall -- they bring their compassion to every site they're on, dealing with the emotions of people who've lost their home or business, or even a pet. Drew, who had an MBA and feels he has a lot to offer marketing -- we've already set him up with the marketing department, and two of his ideas are being worked on right now, on a national basis. There are talented people within this organization. If one idea catches on and we can spread it across 400 offices, what a better company we can be.

In the case of Brenda -- she was a homeless person living on the streets. She will be part of our sensitivity training now. For her to talk to our employees and share her story around the world can only bring another level of compassion to our people.

With Joe, who was working side jobs to support his family -- that bothered me. We're going to put him on commission and give him the opportunity to earn more. We fronted him some draw so he can drop the side jobs and give his all to Belfor.

Undercover Boss: Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Courts Disaster

Getting Closer Than Ever Before

Getting Closer Than Ever Before

Getting Closer Than Ever Before

BNET: What did you change as a result of what you learned on the show?

Yellen: I want all my managers to get closer to their people than ever before, and hear what they've got to say. I want them to know their people's personal stories and situations. I want to know if someone's really struggling.

I am making a commitment to meeting even more people, by having more town-hall meetings. I have the first one scheduled for February 9 in Toronto, and Jen will be right by my side. We're going to have a couple hundred employees at a time, where they can ask questions. I will go out of my way to meet more and more of our people every year.