Wouldn't it be great to see big-shot CEOs get out of their corner offices and rub shoulders with the peons who work for them? Thanks to the magic of television's Undercover Boss, that's now possible.
Every week, the CBS (CBS) hit reality show features an out-of-touch CEO learning the error of his (or her) ways by traveling incognito among his subordinates. It's sort of like the The Prince and the Pauper, but with middle-aged guys in suits.
However, none of the CEOs on Undercover Boss are well-known, and the companies involved (1-800 Flowers, Hooters, Choice Hotels), tend to be small potatoes in terms of corporate size and power.
I think it's time for the show's producers to think big -- really big -- and try to land the crème de la crème of Corporate America for the Undercover Boss treatment. Wouldn't it be great to see Citigroup's CEO serve as a loan officer? Or BP's new chief work as a cashier in a gas station on the Gulf Coast? Below is a list of CEO suggestions, which I'm offering the show's producers. With names like these, Undercover Boss could really get corporate titans and mainstream Americans talking about the state of the real economy.
Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A)
Undercover Assignment: Ice Cream Dispenser, Dairy Queen, Wildwood, N.J.
Reason: Buffett recently appeared in the latest Wall Street and has his own cartoon, so he might be up for going undercover. Dealing with people who are distraught and in need of cash may tax the patience of the normally affable billionaire. Wildwood is the real Jersey Shore (forget that stupid TV show) with scores of drunk, tanned and tattooed young people demanding their frozen treats on a given summer night.
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple (AAPL)
Undercover Assignment: Genius Bar, Apple Retail Store, Pittsburgh, Pa./Wauwatosa, Wis.
Reason: It will take two locations for Jobs to get a true grasp of what it's like to work in one of his stores and deal with problems and complaints with Apple products all day. Pittsburgh is about as far from Silicon Valley as you can get. It's a shot-and-a-beer kind of a town filled with the sorts of blue collar folks who would laugh in Jobs's face if he explained that the iPhone 4's design flaws were the user's fault. Residents of Wauwatosa, a blue-collar town of about 49,000, would find such explanations amusing as well. It would probably be a good idea for Jobs to ditch his trademark black turtlenecks and try to fit in with the Wisconsin locals by studying up on the Green Bay Packers.
Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup (C)
Undercover Assignment: Home Lending Specialist/Loan Officer, Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Reason: Pandit is due a mammoth raise from the $1 salary he earned while the banking giant was swimming in a sea of red ink. Now is the time for Pandit to show what he's really worth. The job, at least according to the company's job description, seems to be an ideal fit: "Consult with customers about their financial situation, financial and personal objectives and lending needs for the purpose of helping them achieve their home ownership goals." Many of their goals, no doubt, will be simply to find a way to stay in their house. Year-to-date, there have been more than 584,000 foreclosure filings in California, according to RealtyTrac.There are 2,766 trustee sales listed on the site in Ventura County, where Thousand Oaks is located.
Bob Dudley, CEO of BP (BP)
Undercover Assignment: Cashier, BP Station, Penasacola, Fla.
Reason: Can you think of a better opportunity for Dudley to get a close-up view of the damage done to the company's brand from this summer's disaster in the Gulf of Mexico? Pensacola's tourism industry suffered after tar balls washed up on its beaches. BP station owners, who are mostly independent, have seen their sales plunge, particularly on the Gulf Coast. It would be nice for Dudley to show he feels their pain.
Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald's (MCD)
Undercover Assignment: Grill Cook, McDonald's Orlando, Fla./ San Antonio, Texas,
Reason: Any McDonald's near a tourist attraction such as Walt Disney World or the Alamo is bound to be insanely busy, particularly on the weekends. Skinner can get to know his cash-strapped customer base. Activists complain that most customers don't bother ordering healthy Happy Meal options. Maybe Skinner, whose company saw strong same-store sales in July, can push some fruit slices and salads.
Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric (GE)
Undercover Assignment: Customer Service representative, GE Appliances, Louisville, Ken.
Reason: The world's largest conglomerate announced in 2008 that it would exit the 101-year-old appliance business. That plan fell apart because of the Great Recession. Some consumers think GE appliances are terrible. Perhaps Immelt ought to see for himself if these rumors or true before he tries unloading the division again. This uncertainty probably does little to help morale.
Michael Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores (WMT)
Undercover Assignment: Cashier, Walmart Barboursville, W.Va./Lumberton, N.J.
Reason: Barboursville's Walmart reopened Sept. 1 after being closed for three months for a redesign the company says offers "a glimpse of the company's next generation of store design and customer experience." Duke should be on hand to see how customers like the new format. Lumberton, near Philadelphia, has a diverse clientele ranging from middle-class families to working class "pineys," residents of the nearby Pine Barrens. There, Duke could speak firsthand with a wide array of Walmart shoppers.
While it's unlikely any of these CEOs will take time out of their busy schedules to appear on a TV show -- indeed, shareholders and other executives would likely consider it beneath them. But even if unlikely, it's fun to imagine how these corporate titans would fare actually serving first-hand the Americans that generate so much of their sales.
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