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At DHL, executives wear employees’ hats for a day

Firm’s leaders seeking feedback from the field

By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2010

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The new delivery guy’s red and yellow, DHL Express polo shirt still had creases in the sleeves and was not as faded as the shirts worn by 70 couriers who were loading parcels into trucks early yesterday morning.

But the new courier isn’t new at all: Ian Clough, DHL’s chief executive officer for US operations, has been with the company for 18 years. Clough and nine other executives and board members from DHL’s Plantation, Fla., headquarters were in Boston yesterday, paired up with couriers for a few hours to get a firsthand taste of a typical day for a delivery driver.

The company loosely modeled the program after “Undercover Boss,’’ a reality TV show in which executives at big corporations work incognito in entry-level jobs for a week. There were a few important differences: Unlike the CBS show, there were no hidden cameras, and drivers knew ahead of time they would be riding along with the company’s top brass.

“The idea is if the CIO or the CFO is evaluating an investment proposal for new equipment for our couriers, and he’s sitting in his nice warm office, he’ll have firsthand experience of knowing what it’s like to be out on a truck in a wet and windy place like Boston,’’ Clough said.

At each stop yesterday, Clough introduced himself and asked people at the various businesses who they normally relied on for their international shipping.

“I’m not sure you want to hear this, but we used to use DHL all the time. But then we stopped,’’ a woman at Hockenson Inc., a carpet seller in the Boston Design Center, told Clough. “I think price was one of the issues.’’

Clough fired back: “Could I get a card of the person I’d need to speak with? Could I have someone contact you to talk about our services?’’

Clough developed the program as a way to better assess how policies enacted at upper levels of the company affect the firm’s front-line workers. The company did not approach producers of the CBS show to see if Clough or another DHL executive could be featured.

DHL executives said they chose Boston for the program because the firm’s South Boston facility has shown improvement since a massive overhaul of the company’s business model in late 2008 and early 2009. During that period, the company closed nearly 300 of it 400 distribution facilities and cut its US workforce to 6,000 from 20,000 to focus exclusively on international shipping.

Before the overhaul, DHL had competed directly with FedEx and UPS by offering domestic, point-to-point shipping, while international shipping accounted for just 20 percent of DHL’s business in the United States. While the moves were painful, the end result has been a return to profitability for the company: Before boarding the trucks yesterday, Clough told the 85 employees at the Boston facility that the company had posted month-over-month growth between March and April, both nationally and in Boston.

Unlike the CBS show in which CEOs do everything from make coffee to pick up trash, union rules prevented Clough and the other executives from performing any of the daily responsibilities of a driver, including picking up, scanning, and delivering packages, as well as inquiring if the recipients would consider using DHL for their own international shipping needs. Clough stressed to the other executives that they were not to interfere with the process or change the customer’s experience.

The executives were there to observe. But that didn’t stop the drivers from joking with the higher-ups.

“You sure you know how to use a two-wheeler?’’ Anthony Sullo, a DHL driver, asked Clough during yesterday morning’s parcel sort.

DHL said drivers were selected at random to be paired with the executives. Clough played wingman to Rudy Stanke, who has worked as a DHL courier for more than 20 years. Stanke said he was nervous.

“They know I’m a pro-company guy,’’ Stanke joked. “They knew I wouldn’t say anything bad.’’

Stanke and Clough rode in a hybrid delivery truck that DHL has been testing in several markets, including Boston. On some routes the truck has improved fuel efficiency by as much as 36 percent. But after just a few deliveries yesterday morning, Clough said, Stanke had given him feedback that would not be readily apparent on a spreadsheet.

“He’s been able to give me some initial feedback. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a straight forward swap’’ between gasoline- and hybrid-powered vehicles, Clough said. “It drives differently — there are differences with pick up and engine noises.’’

The DHL executives have been in Boston all week. On Monday, they hosted officials from their top 20 customers in Boston, and later, Clough and the other executives will be accompanying managers from the Boston facility on sales calls.

“It’s really a back-to-basics approach,’’ said Christine Nashick, a vice president of marketing who was riding along with a DHL courier yesterday.