Talking With…GSI Commerce CEO Michael Rubin

3 Comments | This entry was posted in Retail Companies

When I saw that Undercover Boss would feature an e-commerce company, determining who to feature for our next Talking With… was practically a no-brainer. GSI Commerce CEO Michael Rubin, who went incognito working at the fulfillment and call centers for a week during the holiday season, talks about what task particularly frustrated him, his advice to other executives thinking about participating in the show, and what new initiatives the company is undertaking based on Michael’s experiences.

(If you missed the episode, which provided really eye-opening insights on what it’s like to work the back-end jobs in retail during the holiday season, you can watch it here.)

You made the decision to participate in Undercover Boss before any episodes had aired. There’s no doubt that decision was at least somewhat risky. Why did you agree to move ahead?

I founded GSI Commerce and know our business inside and out. As we’ve grown larger, I have missed the opportunity to be close to the day to day activities that are at the center of what we do and the things that enable us to deliver value to our clients. I wanted the opportunity to connect with the thousands of associates that make our company successful – especially during our busiest online shopping season. Being part of “Undercover Boss” gave me this opportunity.

Your undercover experience occurred during the holiday season. For everyone who has never worked in retail during that particular time frame, tell us what that was like.

Going undercover in our fulfillment centers during the holiday season was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. At one point, after loading trucks all day, all I could do was sit on the locker room floor and drink water. I stayed there (on the floor) for an hour.

I definitely learned about the hard work and dedication it takes to service our clients and their customers during the holiday season. I have a totally new appreciation for all of our permanent and seasonal employees.

Was there any point in the “undercover” experience that you felt completely overwhelmed or frustrated by a certain task? If so, tell me about it.

Yes! In addition to the exhausting work I did loading trucks, I also worked as a packer in the fulfillment center. I thought I’d be able to ace every job they gave me but I couldn’t event meet the hourly quotas.

What were your biggest takeaways from this experience? What did you learn about your company?

My biggest takeaway was that our employees work extremely hard and dedicate themselves to excellence. Even when they may be struggling with things in their personal lives, they still come to work every day and do the best job possible. As a business owner, I could not ask for more than that.

Can you tell us what changes you’ve made to GSI Commerce business practices, employee dynamics or customer relations since going on the show?

We are piloting a program later this month that we’re calling “A Day in the Life.” Our key corporate employees will spend about a week in our customer contact centers learning and observing. If the pilot achieves the goals, then it will be rolled out company-wide.

How did the experience of the show change the way you lead and manage your company?

This was a life-changing experience. I no longer view the company just from the eyes of the CEO. Now, I think about how my decisions will impact everyone in the company. I’ve developed a greater awareness and sensitivity to my employees’ needs.

As the founder of GSI Commerce, what led you to start a business that focuses on the back-end, behind-the-scenes part of retail?

I’ve been an entrepreneur since the age of 12, when I started a ski tuning business in my parents’ basement. After that, I went into the sporting apparel business. It was during this time that one of my clients told me about the challenges he was facing trying to figure out this whole retail-on-the-web concept.

That conversation turned on a light bulb in my head: I realized the Internet was the future of retail and my company should be the one guiding retailers through this transition. We were able to provide retailers with the end-to-end services – from website hosting to fulfillment to customer services – that they needed to build their online businesses.

Over the years, GSI Commerce has evolved and we continue to offer e-commerce services as well as additional services like interactive marketing, email marketing, product photography and online private sales — whatever our clients might need to help them grow their online businesses.

You’re one of the youngest CEOs in the country, and you’ve always been your own boss. What can you advice do you have for people who are thinking about starting their own business?

My advice is to have a vision, a solid business plan and the ability to accept that you are going to have to crawl before you walk. Prior to GSI, I tried my hand at a few different businesses and it took time to get it right. Even though I’m young, trust me when I say success does not happen overnight.

What would you say to other company executives weighing the decision to participate in “Undercover Boss” – or even go undercover in their own company?

If you are a CEO and are approached by Undercover Boss, you have to do it. It is a great way to connect with employees, figure out what their needs are and learn how to better run your business.

After taping a show that brought you back to the inner workings of your own company, what was your favorite part of the entire experience?

The experience was interesting from start to finish. I really liked connecting with employees on one-to-one level as a colleague and not the CEO. I met some incredible employees who have faced some difficult challenges in their life but come to work everyday with an extremely positive attitude.

What do you love most about retail?

That it’s always evolving. Customers are in control of the retail experience, which means retailers have to keep up with their ever-changing demands or risk being left in the dust. That’s what GSI is all about: equipping our retail clients with the insights and services they need to meet consumer demand and stay competitive. It’s an awesome job.

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  1. Posted December 1, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I applaud him for taking part at the show because it’s a great opportunity to widen your knowledge and understanding about the most important asset your his business, your people/employees. There’s no better way to understand your people than through getting to know them personally, to hear their unfiltered pains, burdens and the likes. As a business owner, you need not take part of the show to experience this as there are other ways to do this.

  2. Posted February 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    This is an experience every CEO needs to be able to understand fully the challenges their lower level employees face on their job. I’m sure Michael Rubin will be a better CEO from the experience. Great idea for the show.

  3. Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree. Connecting with your employees on a personal level as a colleague rather than as a CEO will give you much greater insight into the challenges, hopes and dreams of your lower-level employees. “Lower level” of course does not mean they are less capable they just have a lower position in the hierarchy.

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