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CEO in the Ditch

At a “town hall” meeting with employees of St. Louis-based Insituform, a $600 million firm that repairs sewer, water and …

At a “town hall” meeting with employees of St. Louis-based Insituform, a $600 million firm that repairs sewer, water and other underground piping systems, someone asked CEO Tom Rooney, “What do you people in corporate do? Aren’t you just overhead while the people in the field do the work?”

After his initial irritation passed, Rooney realized the employee’s question spoke to an issue that disturbs him-the low esteem in which CEOs and other top executives are now often held, thanks to the likes of Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers and others. Rooney realized the question offered an opportunity.

In addition to improved worker safety and product quality, the Insituform CEO has made raising the productivity of his work force a key goal of his three-year turnaround plan. So he and his executive team decided to set up a national competition. The work crew with the best productivity improvement in the first quarter would get a week off, and be replaced by the executive team, which would work however many hours were necessary to match the average amount of pipe laid in one week. A work crew in Mobile, Ala., won the competition.

Working underground in the heat, the beefy, 46-year-old CEO got sprayed in the face with raw sewage, up close and personal with giant cockroaches, and dissed by his unsuspecting fellow guests at the lower-end motel where the team slept at night.

His response? Rapture. “I learned 10 times what I thought I would,” he says.

 Rooney’s intent was not only to demonstrate to employees that Insituform’s management is in touch with its employees. He also wanted to boost productivity at the company, where he has already led significant improvements in safety and quality during a three-year turnaround.

Rooney also wanted a deeper understanding of what Insituform’s field workers experience on the job.Most C-level executives, he notes, rarely have direct experience doing employees’ jobs, at most having watched for a few hours.

Spending four days literally in the ditch, Rooney learned how frequently his employees have to depart from “the book” to get the job done, and how creative they have to be to do it; nothing went quite the way it was supposed to for the executive crew. He also learned that the company badly needed to revamp its capital expenditures plans to improve its robot technology. And he found that even at the modest hotels where employees spend their off-duty hours, the appearance and fragrance of sewer work is sometimes not endearing to fellow guests, some of whom are less than subtle about showing it.

So edifying was the experience, Rooney says, that he is now dreaming up new challenges, involving the full range of the company’s operations. 

Although acknowledging that he dramatized his regular guy bona fides  more than most, Rooney actually thinks most American executives are in touch with their employees and do have their feet firmly on the ground. “Lay and Skilling and a few others  have created a tarnish that the vast majority of hard-working American CEOs don’t deserve,” he says.

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