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Getting Real

Not long ago, a photograph of Liz Claiborne CEO William McComb jammed into a seat in coach class appeared in …

Not long ago, a photograph of Liz Claiborne CEO William McComb jammed into a seat in coach class appeared in the The Wall Street Journal. The article described how CEOs were forgoing trips on private planes and even giving the thumbs-down to first class and business class as a way of cutting costs. Such selflessness was bound to get the attention of shareholders.

Though McComb tried to put a nice face on things, the article made it clear that flying coach was no picnic. Not only was he suffering the ergonomic misery of riding in steerage, he had made the trip to Newark airport by subway, commuter train and monorail. All told, the trek from his midtown Manhattan office to his hotel in Los Angeles took more than 13 hours. Had he traveled by private plane, he would have been in bed hours before, and would be all brighteyed and bushy-tailed when it came time to lead a conference call with Claiborne employees in Asia. Instead, he was a physical wreck.

Attention-getting stunts like aerodynamically consorting with the plebs are wonderful in theory. They bring an aura of democracy to corporations and probably lift morale among employees and shareholders alike. Moreover, because 28 companies cited by the Journal are putting their private aircraft up for sale this year, a growing number of CEOs may find themselves flying commercial class as the current recession wends its way toward its macabre conclusion. So they need to get used to the new regime.

But is it all worth it? The long delays, loss of sleep, cramped conditions, crummy food and need to pop sleeping pills just to catch a few z’s here and there? Sure, it looks terrific on the symbolic level, but if the net effect is to have a CEO arrive in Los Angeles so worn out he literally can’t find the lobby elevators, is anyone benefiting from this?

This is where Corporate Impostors comes in. Corporate Impostors is a boutique service with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London and Tokyo that provides companies with CEO lookalikes who will ride coach on long flights while the real CEO travels by private jet. The impostors go out of their way to draw attention to themselves, hoping that a report of their selfless sacrifices will make its way into the news. One YouTube video of a CEO wearing a neck brace during a flight from Boston to Rio de Janeiro has been watched 1.5 million times, lifting the company’s stock by 40 percent. The CEO-who appears to be suffering mightily in the video- is actually Travis Glickhaus, an unemployed actor from Brookline, Mass.

“Our service allows CEOs to travel to important meetings in an ambience of luxury and comfort,” explains Corporate Impostors founder Barry Germaine. “Meanwhile, the stand-in sends the reassuring message to shareholders that everyone is sucking it up during this brutal economic downturn.”

Corporate Impostors has more than 2,000 clients, ranging from a CEO who doesn’t want to attend his brother-in-law’s dreaded annual barbecue in Ysplanti, Mich., to 23 executives who hate having to hear Aida every year just because they’re on the opera company’s board of directors. “Not having to schlep to Northern Michigan every year has added years to my life,” says the wayward Wolverine CEO. “I just work better knowing that I never have to see those deadbeats again.”

Corporate Impostors is now expanding its services to include impersonators who will stand in at ribbon- cutting ceremonies, wakes and company picnics. It will even furnish impostors who not only look like the CEOs, but sound like them. These individuals have actually been hired to negotiate with labor unions and testify at Senate hearings in Washington.

“Corporate Impostors is a godsend,” exclaims one auto industry CEO. “If I had to down to Washington and get grilled by those idiots on Capitol Hill one more time, I would slit my wrists. At least this way I can stay up here in Detroit and figure out how we’re going to unload all these SUVs.”

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.