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TheStreet Open House

UniFirst CEO Reveals 'Secret Formula' For His Company's Success

Stocks in this article: UNF

WILMINGTON, Mass. , Oct. 10, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Ever notice how the most successful companies always seem to have a "secret formula" for success? Like Coca Cola with its unique soft drink mix or Google with its industry-leading search engine algorithm?

(Photo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20131010/NE95406)

Such formulas generally cannot be duplicated by competitors and they often provide companies with a valuable competitive advantage.

As the only public company within its industry to grow revenues every year since 1936, including each of the recent recessionary years, UniFirst may have just such a "secret formula ." UniFirst supplies and services uniforms that are "job-fitted work clothes" tailored to the needs of companies throughout the U.S. and Canada.

So what's UniFirst's secret? "It's our people, or as we call them our Team Partners, and their highly focused customer service disciplines that call for developing 'Customers for Life,'" says UniFirst President and CEO Ron Croatti. "Others can try to copy our uniform products and services, but they cannot replicate the customer-oriented family culture we nurture corporately and at each of our 225 service sites nationwide. As a result , competitors struggle to achieve the customer service and satisfaction levels we maintain, and this is often evidenced in the bottom line."

The Company's success in the customer service arena, Croatti says, can be traced back to 1936 when UniFirst was founded upon three Core Business Values for all employees to follow: (1) a customer focus, (2) a respect for others, and (3) a commitment to quality. UniFirst and its people remain as committed as ever to these basic business philosophies today, as well as to such employee programs as regular informal team meetings at all sites to review Team Partner and/or customer concerns, and financially rewarding those who attain customer service, customer retention, and other customer satisfaction benchmarks. "Of course," CEO Croatti says, "recruiting the right quality of people who naturally live by 'the golden rule' (treating others as you'd like to be treated) is also essential if we expect our Partners to adhere to our founding core values and truly commit themselves to our customers. This has been a key ingredient to UniFirst's formula for success."

"All tightly-knit families effectively communicate, share, and look out for one another," Croatti says. "And our UniFirst family of 11,000 Team Partners is no different."   That's why he says he supports initiatives like "Lunch with the Leader," for example, that help local managers better understand their people, learn about new ideas, and listen to Team Partner concerns. Croatti and UniFirst also sponsor a specially trained team of Human Resource Professionals that regularly visits the Company's 225 locations to speak directly with local staff…at all levels…and to assist managers in fostering their own customer-oriented "families."

In 2011, UniFirst's caring, family culture and the down-to-earth paternalism of its leadership were aired worldwide for all to see when Ron Croatti went "undercover" at various UniFirst locations as part of CBS-TV's hit reality show Undercover Boss. Outfitted in a "hippie" disguise, the CEO worked alongside his Team Partners sewing emblems onto uniforms, folding aprons, operating giant industrial laundering machines, and much more…all in the name of the customer.

"The generosity and heartfelt concern for his people that Ron showed on the program were genuine," says Adam Soreff, UniFirst Director of Marketing and Communications, "as are the times, for example, when he lunches in the corporate cafeteria and chats with our Team Partners on a first name basis. It's such examples of Ron's down-to-earth nature that help build sustainable team spirit and motivation from the 'top down'—both of which manifest themselves in our high customer satisfaction levels."

And as UniFirst grows financially, it's able to share more with its Team Partners, which also helps keep them feeling appreciated and customer-focused. On an ongoing and annual basis the company deposits matching funds and profit sharing monies into Team Partner Individual Retirement Accounts. Over the past decade, those contributions have amounted to about $100 million.

"We consider every contributing Team Partner a valuable part of our company, so we constantly strive to help them advance their careers," CEO Croatti says. Toward that end, all UniFirst locations have been equipped with video conference rooms for communication and training purposes, and all Team Partners are encouraged to take advantage of self-paced learning classes on the company's intranet, as well as tuition reimbursement benefits. Hiring from within is encouraged, and the most promising employees are invited to enroll in the UniFirst Management Institute (UMI), a comprehensive management training program that prepares Team Partners to become the Company's future leaders.

Given the family atmosphere at UniFirst, it's no surprise that UniFirst achieves an industry-high employee tenure rate. For example, Customer Servicing staff average 15 years with the Company, and its top 100 managers average more than 20 years of tenure.

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