Faith Undercover: A Catholic CEO promotes good values and good businesswith a little help from reality television

Dina Dwyer-Owens understands business. As chairwoman and chief executive officer of The Dwyer Group, she has successfully led the holding company of seven service-based franchise organizations—Aire Serv, Glass Doctor, Mr. Appliance, Mr. Electric, Mr. Rooter, Rainbow International and The Grounds Guys—since 1999. With more than 1,300 franchises in the United States, these groups provide repairs and other services to thousands of homes around the country. But Dwyer-Owens says that a company needs not just good business sense, but good values, to succeed. When the company marked its 30th anniversary last year, she realized she needed to see for herself if it was living up to the standards set by its founder, her father. Enter “Undercover Boss.” Dwyer-Owens contacted the reality show, in which high-ranking executives go undercover within their own companies to find out the truth about how their businesses work at the ground level, and signed up to pose as “Faith Brown,” a potential trainee in the trade business.  Dressed in a long, dark wig and pearls, she tries her hand at landscaping, replacing a water heater, repairing a stove, and installing an electrical outlet. Through the experience, she sought to learn not only about her business, but about the people on its front lines.

Why did you want to do Undercover Boss?

One of the things I really dreamt of doing when I came into this role [of CEO and president] was getting in an RV and traveling across the country and going out with our frontline technicians just to really understand what they did. I wanted to hear from frontline team members, what they would do to better serve the customer. Well life got busy, and I did go out in a truck with some technicians here in Waco, Tex., but I never did get out in the field. Undercover Boss happened to be a show I really admired, and it’s watched by all ages and provides a good education for the viewers as to what goes on in so many different companies. We approached the production company and they were very excited.

What did you expect going into the experience?

There were a couple of things I wanted to uncover. Our company has a very strong code of values, and I think we’ve done a really good job at the corporate level of making sure we’ve emphasized the importance of all of our employees really working hard to live by the code of values. We call it living R.I.C.H. And it’s just an acronym for respect, integrity, customer focus and having fun in the process. Along with each one of those there are specific values or standards that we expect our team to live up to, like making only agreements we’re willing able and intend to keep. One of my biggest goals was to find out if our code of values is making it to the front lines, and are our customers experiencing it, because if they are, then that means we’re living up to the theme of putting customers first. I have to tell you, I was pleasantly surprised. I did not have any say in who I was going to spend time with. Two out of the four people I met with spoke specifically about our company’s code of values and even handed me a card with our company’s code of values on it, which is a dream come true for me.

The episode also showed you going into church to pray, and it sounds like your Catholic faith is a big part of your life. How does that affect the way you run your business?

Oh, everything. Even this morning before I came to work I was at Mass. It was great, because it was a kid’s mass. It’s one of my favorites because I can always understand the homily. My faith has been a growing process for me as it is for everyone. My mother raised me to go to church on Sundays, and it was enough to go to church on Sundays. As I grew in my leadership role at the Dwyer Group I always relied on my faith. A reporter for Glamour magazine once was doing an article on successful “she-e-o’s.” She asked me what my three secrets to success were, and the first thing that came to my mind was my faith. I am only good at a couple of things, to be frank, so I really rely on my faith to guide me and lead me in the right direction and to help me treat people with kindness and respect no matter what role in our company they play. Faith has always played a role in my life, but today moreso than ever, because you’ve got to keep balance, and the one way I keep balance is to go to Mass regularly. It just keeps things in perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the activities of life and when I go to mass it just settles me. It’s getting that reinforcement of here’s what’s important: serve others. So whatever I do today it’s about serving others.

The experience of going into the show seems to be a Christlike one in the sense of “When did I see you hungry lord,” seeing Christ in the people you work with and them seeing Christ in you and both of you being surprised by the deeper elements of the people you worked with.

Wow! That is a good way to look at it. You just moved me. I went into each of those jobs saying who is this person that I’m spending time with and who cares so much about our customers? And everyone had very unique stories. I haven’t seen the episode yet, but I know the show couldn’t share a day’s worth of stories. I know there will be a lot missing, but everyone was unique and they all had challenges. One of the grounds guys, I don’t know if they revealed this, his father had committed suicide.

Yes, I saw that.

Well for a kid his age to be dealing with that and to have the attitude he had with me as a trainee and to care so much to help his mom with his younger brothers—I could have just fallen apart right there. And that’s just one story of the 4 and yet every one of them had something going on in their lives and they put the customer first at work and they put me first and each treated me, not knowing who I was, as if I was someone unique and special.

Did this experience change the way you look at the company going forward?

But since the show, I just see things differently. I always knew the front-line team worked hard, but I spent almost a day with each one of them, and now even when I’m driving and is see someone on the side of the road or working in a service vehicle, I first say a prayer and I think of their day. I cleaned carpets occasionally as a younger person. My father had us working since we ere 13 years old. But this experience gave me a whole different perspective.  I could only have gotten that by experiencing the frontline firsthand. 

It sounds like your father was a huge influence. How does your work affect the way you view your family life and your family life affect the way you view your work?

You learn from your parents—things that you want to do and things that you don’t want to do. My dad raised me with a strong work ethic, and my mother really grounded me in the Catholic faith. And what I learned from my father was that nothing comes free in life, so you’ve got to work hard and you’ve also got to give back. As he got older he started working with us on having balance in life and really making sure you’ve got time for the six areas of life, as he calls it: family, spiritual, physical, mental, career and financial. It doesn’t mean you have to give equal time to each, but you have to make sure you’re doing what’s important in each of those areas. When he was a younger man growing the business, he was not home a lot. We girls missed him and the boys missed him even more. I’m not going to make work so important in my life that I look back and say, what happened to the time with my kids? My kids and my husband have gone around the world with me on business trips. I set a goal that I would not travel more than 25 or 30 days a year without having a family member or friend with me. It works. It’s about setting priorities and living up to your priorities.

What advice would you offer to folks trying to balance their business and family and faith?

You have to understand what your values are, what’s most important in your life, and based on that ask: How do I prioritize my time? We have three things we can manage: our money, our time, our energy. So I think you have to ask: How do I do that and make it work. It’s not hard to come up with a plan; it’s living a plan. We can get so caught up being busy. Every 90 days I go away for a day and I spend a full day working on the business but on my private life as well. I ask myself: How do I keep things prioritized? I’m not perfect at it, but I’m peaceful, and my foundation is my faith.

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