Ronald D. Croatti’s path to taking charge of UniFirst Corp., his family’s uniform service and supply company, didn’t start in the boardroom.
“I was expected to head the company, and began at the very bottom, cleaning toilets, among other lesser chores,” he once told the Globe.
Then he decided to take another turn at performing hands-on jobs at UniFirst, which is based in Wilmington and has some 240 facilities. Heading to company plants in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, he donned a disguise and was featured in 2011 on the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.”
The experience, Mr. Croatti said, was enlightening.
“We need the input from the younger generation, who are a little closer to the issues down in the field,” he told UniFirst’s executives upon returning to the boardroom, and he made several changes, not least of which was telling his white-collar colleagues to do what he had done.
He assigned his executives to work shifts in some of the jobs they ultimately supervised — positions many steps lower on the corporate ladder.
“At the end of that project, one thing he saw is that the employees have great ideas,” said his son Michael, a UniFirst senior vice president, who added: “I had to unload three tractor-trailers full of dirty laundry.”
Mr. Croatti, who as CEO, president, and chairman led the company through a period of growth that quintupled annual revenues to an estimated $1.5 billion, died in Brigham and Women’s Hospital May 23 of complications of pneumonia. He was 74 and lived in Londonderry, N.H.
“Physically he was a huge man, a big bear of a guy with a deep voice, and he was very imposing,” said his sister Cynthia of Boston, who is executive vice president at UniFirst.
“He was extremely, extremely hard-working, extremely passionate, and I would say truly in love with his job and his business,” she added. “He was single-minded about the business, and he knew everything about it, which was unusual. He would know almost ridiculous amounts of detail.”
Nevertheless, there were always more details to absorb, as he found out in his “Undercover Boss” experience. For the show, he adopted the identity of “Mike Daniels,” a former owner of a hobby store who was returning to work because of the recession. The balding Mr. Croatti was decked out in a wig of long white hair and a slightly droopy white mustache that came loose when he was sweating from the physical labor.
On the plant floor, he found several jobs challenging, including using a foot pedal on the sewing machine that attached patches.
“He has a heavy foot,” his co-worker lamented. “He’ll push the pedal too hard and not move his hands fast enough.”
He also learned that restructuring was in order for certain jobs. For example, the company provided tables for the workers who empty laundry bags and sort through varying kinds of soiled towels. The tables were designed for 25-pound bags, however, while the bags weighed 75 to 125 pounds, which meant the workers had to dump the towels on the floor for sorting.
“It became clear to me during our ‘Undercover Boss’ experience that too often we establish rules, protocols, and training programs by simply ‘observing’ various jobs rather than actually ‘doing’ them,” Mr. Croatti said in a statement after the show aired. “We need to become more informed by ‘doing’ the tasks prior to developing or refining job requirements, policies, and new service offerings.”
Born in Boston, Mr. Croatti was a son of Aldo Croatti and the former Alba Olney.
National Overall Dry Cleaning Co., the precursor to UniFirst, was founded in a converted horse barn in Boston in 1936. Mr. Croatti’s father became general manager of the company four years later, and president in 1941. UniFirst now has about 13,000 employees and is one of the nation’s leading providers of uniform services — manufacturing, selling, cleaning, pressing, and mending the clothes that some 2 million workers wear each day.
Aldo Croatti ran the business for about 50 years until handing over leadership to Ronald. “He believed deeply in the value of every employee,” Mr. Croatti said of his father in a 2006 Globe interview. “He always said the best results come from working with people, rather than having them work for you.”
Among his father’s innovations was making his business among the first to rent industrial clothing to customers, instead of just providing laundry services, and adding a service to remove radioactive materials from work clothes.
Mr. Croatti was a boy when his father began bringing him to work.
“When I started I was probably about 12 or 14,” he recalled on the “Undercover Boss” show. “I would come down to the plant with him and go sweep up the mop room. I’d get a buck or something.”
He graduated from San Diego State University and soon after joined his family’s company, in 1965. He became CEO in 1991, president four years later, and chairman in 2002.
Among the challenges he faced leading the company was the cleanup of UniFirst’s former Woburn facility, which became part of a Superfund site that was subject of a book and movie, “A Civil Action.” The company spent millions on the effort, Mr. Croatti told the Globe in 2005, adding: “We’ve been very proactive.”
UniFirst was highly-ranked among Massachusetts businesses, celebrating 25 consecutive years on the Globe 100 annual list of the state’s best-performing companies in 2013. “UniFirst was like a child to him, it was his baby,” said his son Michael, who lives in Pelham, N.H. “He lived it. He breathed it 24 hours a day.”
A service has been held for Mr. Croatti, who in addition to his son and his sister leaves his wife, the former Carol Kozara; two other sons, Aldo of Coral Springs, Fla., and Matthew of Winchester; a daughter, Melissa Croatti O’Rourke of Hudson, N.H.; a sister, Mona Levenstein of Hamilton, Ontario; a brother, Fred of Port Orange, Fla.; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Croatti “was larger than life,” his son Michael said. “He truly loved the business. He was like everybody’s dad in the company.”
During his “Undercover Boss” stint, Mr. Croatti was impressed that one supervisor came up with a plan to extend a railing system that was part of the system for loading carts at a UniFirst plant. That small innovation saved 30 to 60 minutes a day, he said in the show.
In a boardroom scene at the end of the show, he praised the insights of the workers with whom he had sorted towels, folded pants, and loaded industrial-size washing machines.
“They come forward with good suggestions and they’ve got to get up to us,” he told his company executives. “They’ve got the answers to solve our problems. And we’ve got to just reach out to them and the company would be much better off.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.