Usually, CBS's hit show Undercover Boss features an out-of-touch executive who, while in disguise as one of his workers, learns firsthand about the hardships his employees deal with every day. But when it came to the show's latest episode, which showcased Joel Manby the Chief Executive of theme-park operator Herschend Family Entertainment, it felt like the boss was genuine and real, unlike his interactions with his supposedly unsuspecting employees.
In the opening minutes of Undercover Boss, the audience learns that Manby is a hardworking Midwesterner from humble beginnings in Battle Creek, Mich. The show highlights his stint in the auto industry where, at a young age, Manby rose through the ranks to head Saab North America only to quit after the pressure of the job caused him to develop a drinking problem and start neglecting his family.
"It was a difficult decision to leave the auto industry, but I actually feel like I was called to run this company." says Manby, who -- like the Herschend family that controls the HFE -- is a devout Christian. (Among the company's charitable work is the Silver Dollar City Foundation, which "is dedicated to serving God by helping kids and bringing families closer together in the communities of Stone and Taney counties in Missouri.")
Over the course of the show Manby, like his Undercover Boss predecessors before him, takes on several less-than-glamorous jobs. His first stint is to learn the ropes from the captain of the Ride the Ducks ride at the company's Stone Mountain Park in Georgia. Of course, Manby has a difficult time filling the shoes of the rolly polly duck boat captain who charms the children on the ride and flubs plenty of lines.
At HFE's Silver Dollar City park in Branson, Mo., Manby encounters a young ticket-taker named Albert, who reveals over lunch that he is gunning for Manby's job (of course, he supposedly does not know he is speaking with Manby himself). The front gate worker just so happens to have a laptop in his locker with designs for theme park attractions, including an underwater roller coaster. Manby soon learns that Albert can't really afford the tuition for a design school and must work full time to earn enough to pay for only a handful of hours of study per semester. At this point, it's easy to see that Manby plans on changing young Albert's life.
The show then takes a more typical turn when Manby encounters two single moms that work at his company's theme parks. At a Riverboat Branson Belle show in Branson he is paired up with a hard-working waitress named Jennifer who is divorced and has two young children at home. When Jennifer learns that one of her children is home sick, her face drops and she discusses the company's lack of child care facilities (does Jennifer know who she is speaking with?). Manby meets another single mom at the company's Camden N.J.'s Adventure Aquarium who he learns was homeless when she first landed the job wiping hand prints off of the aquarium glass two years ago. She has since moved into an apartment.
At the end of the show, Manby, much like Mr. Rourke from the 1970s classic TV show "Fantasy Island," helps all of the employees he worked with. He sends the duck boat captain to other parks to teach them his singular style of tour guiding and offers to cover child care for Jennifer, the single mom server. He gives Mercedes from the N.J. aquarium a raise and offers to furnish her new apartment. For Albert, the aspiring HFE CEO, Manby offers a scholarship that will allow him to attend school full time without having to work.
The stories in this episode of Undercover Boss were heartbreaking, but it was hard to believe that all of the interactions were 100% genuine. Didn't Manby's co-stars think it was odd that a television camera was documenting someone's first day at a unglamorous job? And why did they spill their guts to a stranger in front of television cameras? It sure seemed like someone -- say a producer -- might have mentioned to them that their new co-worker was a "good listener."
A spokesperson from HFE wasn't immediately available for comment.
CEO Joel Manby: A Real 'Undercover Boss' on a Seemingly Scripted Show