Moss Bros chief executive Brian Brick got an uncomfortable view of how his company operates in this week’s episode of Undercover Boss, a Channel 4 reality TV series.
Incognito, he spent a day at shops in Bristol, Richmond-upon-Thames and Edinburgh, plus a shift with a delivery lorry in London to discover how the menswear retailer and its staff operate on the frontline.
Brick’s alias was that he was the subject of a fictitious reality show – a bookkeeper looking for a change of career into menswear. The producers of Undercover Boss dyed his hair, had him grow a short beard, shed his trademark glasses for contact lenses, gave him a light spray tan and dressed him in an outfit that would have pleased a flamboyant antique dealer.
Entertaining as that spectacle was, the interesting part of the hour-long show was what the boss found out about the feelings of the regular foot soldiers among his 130-strong chain. Who knows how the programme was edited for dramatic effect, but Brick is to be admired for being brave enough to have severe and heartfelt criticism of him, his management strategy and his company aired on national TV. The staff member in the struggling rundown Bristol branch described his own amateurish attempts at redecoration as “like polishing a piece of shit”. Bizarrely, he chose to do this during Ascot Week, Moss Bros’s busiest period for its hire business. Brick’s self-restraint was admirable.
The employee in Edinburgh, who had been doing the job of the hire department manager for five years without being promoted or paid accordingly, described Moss Bros as feeling like a “sinking ship”. Brick’s on-screen pain and dismay looked all too obvious.
A bright, articulate student who worked part-time in Richmond pointed out the inadequacies of the company’s website, particularly its attractiveness or otherwise to the younger audience Moss Bros desires. The London driver made the undercover CEO see how inefficient the delivery process was – five bits of paper had to be signed at each drop-off – and how the delivery routes were overlong and stressful.
The rather obvious result of these encounters was that Brick, who has done an impressive job in turning around Moss Bros in his five years in charge, received plenty of sensible ideas from these amazingly devoted workers. For me the programme was slightly spoiled by the mawkish ending, which saw the quartet brought to the company’s Covent Garden store where the identity of their temporary workmate was revealed by Brick himself in his normal guise. The two permanent shop staff thought they would be sacked but were promoted. The bright fella from Richmond was given an internship in the company’s ecommerce department (although it was not clear if this was paid or unpaid) and the lorry driver learned that the routes were to be shortened and new lorries bought to replace the ageing and unreliable fleet.
Clearly a 9pm slot on Channel 4 gave Moss Bros some handy national publicity but I wonder how many consumers would have rushed down to their local branch after seeing this. The message to anyone who runs a business was telling, however. There are obvious and vital advantages of getting away from the spreadsheets and out into the business to talk to the people that do the real work.
The most disturbing aspect of the entire show was the reminder of how little shop staff are paid. The Edinburgh man said he had not had a pay rise for 10 years, while the Bristol employee did a daily four-hour commute by coach from Cardiff to earn, he revealed, less than £300 a week. These guys must be very impressed that Christopher Bailey thinks he’s worth £20m a year to Burberry.