As an idea that was floated by him a year before the pieces started to fall into place, Ellis Jacob thought participating in a TV show where he'd secretly work as an employee at a Cineplex movie theatre, in addition to his usual duties as the Canadian theatre exhibition giant's CEO and President, sounded like an exciting opportunity.
That until he realized it would involve shaving his trademark moustache.
Sitting in his Toronto office in the Cineplex building on Yonge Street, Jacob jokes that taking a razor to that tuft of hair above his lip for the first time in 35 years, dyeing his hair and donning a wig took some - okay, a lot of - convincing, but he's clearly delighted by the results of his stint on "Undercover Boss Canada," airing March 1 to 5.
Impressed by the young charges who showed him the ropes at the five GTA-area theatres he worked, Jacob himself was introduced to the teams as Judah Michaels, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario who had worked in the automotive industry and was looking to be re-trained in a different field. Jacob was on the front lines of theatre service and may have served you popcorn, greeted you, helped set up your child's party room or swept the area near where you put up your feet, if you were catching a flick when the team was filming.
We caught up with the busy man to chat about what it took to go undercover, what he learned from the experience and why at least one co-worker wouldn't recommended him for the job.
You obviously couldn't look like yourself for this to work. What did it take to go undercover?
They made me shave my moustache.
And how did that feel?
Terrible. But it was so unbelievable, the transformation, that my own daughter didn't recognize me.
Wow. How did it feel the first time you looked at yourself in the mirror?
I freaked out a little bit.
So if your own daughter didn't recognize you, did anyone else know it was you under the disguise?
One General Manager recognized me because of my walk and my voice [laughs] but they pulled him aside and told him. The way we approached it was that we were doing a documentary, nothing to do with the actual show.
Walk me through a typical day.
Well, it varied because depending on the theatre I did different jobs. In Newmarket, I was responsible for birthday parties and that was a thrill because I was working for one of our 18-year-old employees, Jody. She was tough as nails. I asked her if she was going to recommend me for the job and she said, 'No, you're too slow.' [Laughs]
So what did she have to say when she found out who you were?
Yeah, she was in my office and she was so excited, she freaked out a bit. But yeah, she was really good and what was amazing was, and the reason I did it, was I wanted to get closer to people in the field. One of the things I'm always a big stickler for is good service and the guest experience and what blew me away, not only the people I worked with, but the people around me, was how passionate they are. We give them a lot of responsibility and there's a lot of work.
Can you give me an example?
In the case of Jody...this mom was supposed to come in with six kids but it ended up being eight or nine kids and our policy is, you get one pizza for six kids [in the party room]. So Jody's [list] said one pizza and the mom started freaking out a bit and Jody just went and made another pizza. And to me, that was fantastic because normally they'd say, 'That's our policy' or 'I gotta go check with the manager' and she basically looked at it and thought, 'Okay, it's about the guest experience.' And these kids were not easy kids to control.
You mentioned you really liked working the party room. What duties were you not as crazy about?
Yeah, she had me sweeping the floors and [another supervisor] John had me cleaning up a lot of stuff so I did a lot cleaning...and then I did popcorn-popping, a greeter, cash, the booth. The booth was fun too because the power went out while [the show] was filming, there really wasn't a lot going on and then there was a big rainstorm outside and the power went out. The theatre had a lot of people in it but much of the staff had gone home so I was all ready to jump into the fray but I thought, I'd better hold myself back.
Have you seen the episode yet?
I've seen a fine cut.
And how did it look?
Well everyone laughed except me. [Laughs]
What surprised you the most about this experience?
Well, not so much a surprise, but what made me feel great was their passion for the business. And remember we're dealing with a lot of young people.
Would you recommend it to others who have the opportunity to go undercover?
As long as you're willing to commit the time, it's a great experience.
Did it make you think at all of a previous boss who you would have wanted to walk a day in your shoes and get some perspective?
I guess, yeah, I would say if the boss I had before, if he did it...but you know, for me, it was a little bit different because I worked at Galaxy and started the business and this actually helped me because it took me back to those days with the staff, with the people, all of the time. The only difference here is that I was undercover so it was a little tougher.
What will you take away from this experience?
The fact that I feel really good about our people. When we have 10, 000 employees, it's hard to know but the fact of the matter is they all blew me away.
Catch Ellis Jacob on "Undercover Boss Canada" March 1-5 on the W Network.