Salt Lake City—When producers from CBS' Undercover Boss contacted YESCO's co-owner Jeff Young about appearing on the show, he jumped at the chance.
"We were absolutely honored that Undercover Boss would consider us, a Utah company, in the lineup. You think about how many great companies there are, and how many there are in the us," he said, noting that The Larry H. Miller Group and Vivint have also appeared on the show in earlier seasons. "To be the third company to have a chance to do this, we're just so honored and thrilled to do this."
Young appeared on the fifth episode of the seventh season of the popular television program, which aired Friday.
For Young, the show brought three major opportunities: to showcase YESCO and Utah's economy; to examine company workings on the granular level in preparation for further expansion before YESCO's centennial in 2020; and to help individual employees. Producers from the show chose the employees who would show Jeff's undercover persona the ropes, with preference to those whose loyalty to the company was second only to the personal struggles they had to face.
To go undercover, Young grew a beard, donned glasses and dyed part of his hair to make an electric purple fauxhawk. For his first job encounter, a service and maintenance technician named Sal taught "Alex" to repair an LED signboard in Chicago. The job was particularly tough for Young, who had a fear of heights.
"What is it when you cross claustrophobia with a little bit of heights?" Young asked as they scaled a small ladder to the top of the sign.
"A day at the office for us," answered Sal.
Young and Sal also replaced part of the neon in the iconic House of Blues sign in downtown Chicago—the inner ring of the "o" in "of" was broken. While the electric signboard job was working with relatively low voltage, this job was a 15,000-volt one, giving Young a taste of how careful workers need to be.
Sal expressed frustration at a lack of training between the YESCO home office in Salt Lake City and the franchise location in Chicago. Those troubles were only compounded by the sometimes 20-hour workdays, especially for Sal, who has a genetic heart condition.
From Chicago, "Alex" went to Las Vegas, first to the facility that focuses on marquee letting and second to the interiors department, which makes signs for the interior of buildings.
At the marquee lettering facility, Young was shown around by an employee named Michael, who had worked at the company with his son after moving to Las Vegas during the Great Recession. Michael, who had been homeless with his family for a time after moving, said he and his son loved working for YESCO but noted that the regular layoffs in their area were demoralizing to the rest of the workforce.
Young was trained in the Interiors Department by Eric, one of the earliest members of the department who openly praised Young and the dedication of YESCO's administration to "Alex." One improvement he noted, however, was that team-building exercises and events, such as company parties or other get-togethers, had diminished since the recession, making the company feel more corporation and less like a corporate family.
After re-dying his hair to its customary brown, Young revealed his true identity to Sal, Michael and Eric. He recruited Sal to help with a training program to improve training and communication between headquarters and the company's 45 franchise locations throughout the U.S., particularly in the eastern part of the country. Young also gave instructions to Sal's supervisors to be more understanding of his medical condition, and donated $60,000 to help replenish Sal's retirement fund that had been heavily damaged by the economic crash.
Eric, too, was tasked with helping solve some of the problems he had noticed, and given a $25,000 fund to use, along with other foremen, to show appreciation to employees in their area. In addition, Young donated $40,000 to Eric's daughter, who was trying to save enough money to attend Dixie State University in St. George. Young also promised Eric to display the picture of his son, who was killed at a young age, on 26 billboards throughout the Western United States every year on the boy's birthday—Jan. 18.
In reflection of his loyalty and his significant personal struggles, Young gave Michael $100,000 to help him acquire a car and home—a gift Michael initially turned down out of fears the money would trickle down and cause more layoffs.
Young saw the episode in Las Vegas, where he was attending a company gathering. While he has spent the months between filming and the episode airing implementing changes to the company, he said the episode brought back the immense hardships some of his employees face.
"I'm still astounded by the personal struggles that were overcome by these employees," he said, noting that many of the details of their plights were cut in the editing process.
In Michael's case, for example, when the family had first come to Las Vegas and were homeless and looking for work, their van was towed, robbing them of their only shelter and means of transportation. When they did find jobs and lodging, their apartment was so small Michael's son, who also works part-time for the company and has a significant heart condition, slept on blankets laid out on the kitchen floor. Unable to afford another vehicle, Michael's only form of transportation was a bike.
That kind of story, or Eric's story, or Sal's, Young said, is the kind of employee information he never would have found during normal working operations.
"It's just an amazing story to me, and a story I never would have discovered on my own. There's a thousand employees, there's a good chance I never would have had a heart-to-heart with Michael. When I saw it, all the emotions came back with how touching his story was, and his loyalty to the company," Young said. "Of course we can't put everyone through college. We can't give everyone money to buy a new house, but we can do something for a few people. That, on top of everything else, was a reason we did this."
Young also said he felt the company was staying true to the values his grandfather and father had built it on before turning it over to him and his three brothers, another facet of the business that had to be cut during the editing process.
"To tell this story to somewhere around 6 million people is something I never would have been able to do any other way," he said. "We're working hard every day to kept his organization strong for our employees and customers. That's always been our focus and we've been very, very blessed."
In terms of operations, Young said the training and tweaks are going well, and the company is moving forward at full speed towards its 100th anniversary in four years. In March, Samsung bought YESCO's Logan-based electronic sign manufacturing divison, about 20 percent of the company. Not only did Samsung keep all of the employees, but it has hired more employees and made investments in land and other assets in Utah, Young said, giving the company an opportunity to work with a global leader in electronics.
"We can continue to do the business we've always done but partner with a global leader in electronics," Young said."Things are looking very bright."
Young's episode can temporarily be viewed here