Were Undercover Boss Larry O’Donnell and President’s Choice Nichol and Currie Too Famous and Successful for their Bosses?

Posted on September 14, 2010

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Late yesterday evening, or perhaps early this morning would be a more appropriate reference, I noted a considerable spike in both the search terms and related visits to the Procurement Insights Blog for the Undercover Boss interview I did with Lawrence O’Donnell III, the President and COO of Waste Management.

Always having a nose for news and related data trends, I could not help but wonder about the reason behind this latest flurry of interest.

Larry as you will recall was the very first Undercover Boss on the hit CBS television series of the same name, so it was quite a thrill to have him as a guest on the PI Window on Business. When you have a moment here is the link to the On-Demand version of the 30 minute segment which I know you will enjoy. (Note: you can also click on the image below to access the interview.)

Click To Listen To On-Demand Interview With Larry O’Donnell

So why the sudden jump in interest?

It turns out that Larry left Waste Management with a $1.6 million severance package to pursue a CEO position with another company. According to one interview regarding his June 30th departure, O’Donnell made the statement that “Our current CEO is a young guy, and he’s not leaving any time soon. He then went on to say that “I want to try to go somewhere I can feel challenged and make a difference.”

The decision to leave was not out of the blue as O’Donnell’s CEO aspirations is “something he’s wanted to do” and that he had talked about it with David Steiner the current CEO “for a long time.”

To say that Larry was a hit on the CBS show, which aired to a huge audience following the 2009 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals – a great game that was won by the Steelers in the final minute – would be an understatement.

However, if Larry wasn’t the real boss was there more to his departure a mere few months after the show had aired than the perfunctory business articles revealed? I had to find out for many reasons including my recollection of the 1994 departure of Dave Nichol from Loblaws under a cloud of what author Deborah Barndt called “much innuendo” to join Cott Corp. and the “unsavory wailing” according to one National Post article of his partner in creative crime Richard Currie, who with Nichol jointly created the ubiquitous and monumentally successful President’s Choice brand.

Currie’s main issue with his former employer The Weston Family, is his contention that “The Westons are attempting to erase my entire career with them.” While the National Post writer clearly comes down on the side of the Westons – and why not as his area of focus in the same piece included a sound bite on Cloris Leachman, the Rocky Horror Picture Show as well as other juicy tidbits of Torontonian gossip (in short hardly a real business writer), other more serious writers saw it differently.

For example, an April 23rd, 2008 Financial Post article by Jeff White expressed the opinion that it is “no coincidence that Loblaw’s problems began around the time Mr. Currie left the company,” and that Currie was the “low-key and long-unrecognized executive genius behind Loblaw’s success.” White then added that “Mr. Currie was quite happy to let Mr. Nichol flaunt himself on television, and Galen Sr. hobnob with the British Royal family, while he got on with the heavy lifting.”

Even Nichol lamented in a January 26th, 2007 piece what he called the “paucity of new ideas in the PC kitchens,” commenting that “those people have no idea how to create a buzz.” Then adding insult to injury Nichol concluded his assessment referencing “the surfeit of non-food items” on the retailer’s shelves, (including) “everything from DVD players to sofas,” with a lot of it being “downright junky.” Ouch, no ill will there I guess.

Based on the success of both O’Donnell and Nichol with Currie in elevating the profile of their respective organizations, and in the case of the latter two returning life-saving cash flow and profitability to a retail chain on the brink, one would think that gratitude on the part of their bosses would foster an enduring association along the lines of a Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys.

However, and like oil and water, gratitude and ego rarely mix. Just watch the following video of an interview with Waste Management’s CEO David Steiner talking about the hit CBS Show shortly before it aired this past February.

Is it just me or does Steiner come across as the ultimate smarmy weasel to O’Donnell’s gentlemanly executive manner? Good thing Steiner has a serious journalist to give his piece the credibility of insightful reporting. Perhaps I should introduce Greenopolis’ Melissa McGinnis to the writer from the National Post as they both seem to like the “it is better to look good, than to feel good” fluff of a hugs and kisses approach to covering a story. Now would be a good time to insert the obligatory Marilyn Munroe “boop boop be-doop“, and squeak.

Greenoplois’ McGinnis

The point here is that Steiner comes across like a CEO feeling a bit overshadowed by a subordinate to the extent that he felt compelled to do an interview in the first place.

While we may never know the true facts behind Larry O’Donnell’s departure from Waste Management it is abundantly clear that the playground mentality of our childhood years including petty jealousies and political infighting seem to permeate some of the executive offices of the country’s largest corporations. Remind me to read the book “Unstable At The Top” again.

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Posted in: Commentary