In March, United Auto Workers President Bob King had this to say about Ford President Alan Mulally, "I think Alan Mulally is a great CEO, but I don't think any human being in the world deserves that much money. I think it's outrageous." King went on to say "I like Alan Mulally, but I just think it's morally wrong," referring to Mulally's compensation package for 2010, which included 3.8 million shares of company stock.
Ignoring the union versus company bias, I think Mr. King captures the mindset of many shareholders and observers of CEO compensation.
The compensation issue is multi-layered. At the simplest level, are CEO’s salaries outrageous? At the next level, should pay be linked to performance? If pay is linked to performance, how do you ensure a CEO is not rewarded when their company’s stock price increases solely because they are in a hot sector and all companies in that sector have outperformed?
In my professional capacity I have/had several CEO’s as clients. Some are/were quite brilliant and a couple former clients were far less impressive. I have clients who are owner-managers of private companies who match the intelligence and foresight of some of these public company CEO’s, yet make far less compensation, even when you take into account the value of the corporations they have built and will sell, or have sold. The point being, not all CEO’s are created equally and not all deserve to be put on a pedestal.
That being said, I would group CEO’s into three camps; the builders of value, the enhancers of value and the freeloaders.
The builders, such as a Steven Jobs or Frank Stronach, who start a company from essentially scratch, deserve huge compensation, at least in the initial building and early post building stage.
I consider an enhancer of value to be a CEO who either takes (1) a mature company and through strategic vision creates more value for the shareholders, or (2) is a turnaround specialist, or (3) is someone who can take a moribund company and changes its direction to make it profitable. These CEO's in my opinion deserve significant compensation.
The problem I have is with the “freeloader” type who earn massive compensation riding economic or cyclical waves while adding very little value to their companies.
In the end, I agree to a large extent with Mr. King. I don’t think any human being deserves the compensation some CEO’s are paid. However, in certain cases as noted above, I believe significant compensation is warranted and that level of compensation should be determined by performance, not the office of the CEO.
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