Undercover Cruise-Line Boss Earns Angel Wings, the Hard Way

Every CEO believes he knows his own company better than anyone else does. So when Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan was invited to be on Undercover Boss, the Emmy-nominated CBS reality show, he expected it to be a piece of cake.

Now that the episode is scheduled to air this Sunday, January 2, Sheehan is eating his words. His incognito experience as a regular employee in his own company opened his eyes about its inner workings.

“I have at least half a dozen procedural changes I want to make as soon as possible – maybe more,” Sheehan said.

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) is one of America’s mainstream cruise lines, but third in size behind Carnival and Royal Caribbean, the top two cruise conglomerates. That’s fine with Sheehan, who came to NCL from car rental company Avis - known for the slogan “We’re number two. We try harder.” At number three, NCL has only about an 8% share of the world cruise market, but the company is also very competitive; planning an IPO soon (an initial public offering of stock - date to be determined).

In Episode 12 of Undercover Boss, scheduled to air on CBS at 9:00 p.m., Jan. 2, Sheehan handles four different jobs aboard two of the line’s most distinctive ships -- the newest and largest NCL flag ship; Norwegian Epic and Pride of America, the only U.S.-flagged cruise ship of size in the world, which NCL has permanently stationed in the Hawaiian Islands.

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When we spoke, Kevin had not yet seen the final cut of the unscripted hour-long episode, only the 30-second trailer already available on YouTube. During our chat about the upcoming show, he seemed a bit nervous – perhaps hoping nothing too embarrassing will be revealed. But none of the employees Sheehan worked with were aware of his true identity, so the potential for some unexpected candor is there, and only the producers know for sure.

Kevin grew a beard to hide his identity and also started each day with an hour in make-up to apply a change to his hairstyle. He committed almost two weeks to taping the reality show.

First he worked in the deck and engine department aboard Pride of America - fully manned by U.S. crew members -- not the typical international crew you see on almost every other cruise ship.

Kevin’s boss there was “John,” an unctuous and avuncular New Yorker hell-bent on busting Sheehan’s chops. As Kevin picks away at flaking paint to prep a deck that seems to extend for miles, John jibes him with “I thought you was a big-time New Yorker! You seem more like you’re from Jersey.” (Close – Sheehan is actually from Jackson Heights, Long Island.) John advises Kevin to “take a good look around because everything you miss now is gonna be a bigger job you don’t want to do later.”

Sheehan slept in crew cabins on both ships and ate in the crew mess. He offered no criticism of the crew food, but when the show airs we should hear crew members talking candidly. I asked if any of the crew members said anything they shouldn’t have said in the CEO's presence. “No, I was truthfully surprised by how friendly they were, most just saving money to send home and proud of what their jobs have allowed them to accomplish,” he said.

Next Kevin earns his angel wings in a different role -- they're part of a costume he must wear as a performing member of the cruise staff. Sheehan takes nearly a day to learn the dance steps he has to perform for the “White Hot Deck Party” that night on Norwegian Epic.

“Surprisingly, this was the hardest thing I had to do,” he said. “Performing is definitely not my specialty.”

Working as an assistant waiter in the Manhattan Room on Epic was no piece of cake either.

“Waiters work with the guests, but they also have to concentrate and keep moving. I don’t know how they do it,” he said. This was where Sheehan really grasped the service provider's role. “It’s a fine line - you want to be friendly, but not detract from the guest’s cruise experience.” By the way, this is also the one time where his manager, Silvia, sees through his disguise. I wonder what gives it away.

Finally, we see Sheehan preparing the so-called “ice skating” activity on Norwegian Epic. In fact, what they call "ice" for skating purposes is really just extra-durable plastic sheeting pounded together with heavy rubber mallets. The cumbersome sheets are retrieved from a storage locker, placed on the tennis court, locked together and lubed up for “skating” for just a few hours before they are removed and stowed away again. “This is ridiculous,” Sheehan says of a procedure he most likely had a personal hand in creating.

“Put a little heart into it,” says recreation staff manager Jessica when Sheehan starts flagging. “My back is broken,” he replies. “This is the worst job ever,” Jessica agrees. When hardly anyone shows up to skate, we get the feeling Sheehan has had a revelation.

NCL is the cruise line that always has to try harder, and I have always given them an “A for effort.” Not every NCL idea turns to gold, but they always deserve a gold medal for candor and good intentions. This show should provide a realistic insider's view of the world of cruise ships – a view we don’t get see very often.

Norwegian Cruise Line is half owned by Leon Black’s Apollo Management, which has controlling interest on the board of directors. The other half is owned by Star Cruises of Malaysia. The filing revealing its intention to make an initial public offering was made on Oct. 26, 2010.

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I started writing about stock market investing for Motley Fool in 1995, but previously I worked aboard cruise ships. I co-founded CruiseMates.com, the first cruise travel guide on the Internet in New York City in 1999. CruiseMates, one the Web’s top cruise travel guides was acquired by Internet Brands (NASD: INET) in 2006. Once CEO, I am now the editor of CruiseMates – Paul Motter.