CEO pay: Why top execs just can't lose

January 10, 2012: 12:06 PM ET

On average, CEOs at S&P 500 companies earn hefty sums, have time for side gigs, and many even get sizable bumps on their way out, even under unsavory circumstances.

By Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance

FORTUNE -- If you could bluff your way into an S&P 500 CEO job, how many days would you have to rough it to earn your current annual pay?

You'd rack up $24,473 per day 365 days a year if you were just middle of the pack, according to a recent GMI study of S&P 500 CEO pay in 2010. Your annual earnings on a weekly basis would be more than $171,000; for 60 days, that'd be a cool $1.5 million.

Of course, if you were a top negotiator, maybe you'd take home what McKesson (MCK) CEO John Hammergren did in 2010. His daily haul, based on his annual pay, was around $398,000, with a weekly total of $2.8 million and a 60-day payout of nearly $24 million.

Could you put up with the rigors given those rates?

Working the one job 24/7

Maybe you're concerned that if you took a job like that, it might engulf your life 24/7. There'd be no time for extracurricular activities.

Not to worry. You'd have the opportunity to work a part-time job too, earning some pocket change on the side. For example, take Hammergren, who took home the biggest bucks in 2010 ($145 million in total compensation), according to GMI. Beyond serving as CEO of McKesson, he has been a board member at HP (HPQ), which paid him around $387,000 last year. As a member of the board's compensation committee, Hammergren has been busy with CEO pay negotiations in recent years.

In 2010, when HP showed former CEO Mark Hurd the door following an investigation into his behavior, Hurd was given $12 million cash plus vesting of some stock. Based on Hammergren's own 2010 wages, $12 million would translate to just 30 days severance. Is that so unreasonable? Under the original agreement, Hurd was also entitled to stock valued $15 million or more. He gave that up, though, in the kerfuffle related to his decision to join Oracle (ORCL) as its co-president.

Hammergren also reportedly volunteered to be on the search committee that identified Hurd's successor, former HP CEO Leo Apotheker. With less than one year of service, Apotheker was ousted last year and walked away with around $25 million. Sound like a lot?  That would only amount to slightly more than 60 days severance based on Hammergren's 2010 pay.

In any event, this one example should ease your mind somewhat. Being a CEO of a major S&P 500 firm does not mean you have to work the one job 24/7.

Cranky investors? Not quite.

What about investor expectations? With large CEO paydays, aren't investors bound to be snarky?

Maybe, but they don't really expect that much, when you consider what they're used to getting in the way of returns. The S&P 500 is down nearly 9% from where it was five years ago. Just working to move the dial a bit forward (rather than backward) will make you a hero. In Hammergren's case, McKesson stock has considerably outperformed the index.

The GMI study notes that some parts of McKesson's executive compensation practices raise eyebrows, like a half a billion dollars Hammergren would be owed if the company were acquired. Still, the board believes his pay is warranted given the company's strong returns, and investors approved his compensation plan last year.

Board oversight, in more ways than one

But what about other boards -- do you need to be concerned that bonus bonanzas could meet their demise, especially since the S&P 500 is now sitting at levels that had already been achieved in the 90s? Isn't pay for performance a major concern of boards today?

The issue is important to boards, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Corporate Directors and compensation firm Pearl Meyer and Partners. But there is no need for alarm. According to the survey, "More than 80% [of board members] …stated they are 'confident' or 'very confident' about how well their current [compensation] programs address the broader challenge of aligning CEO pay with performance."

Populist outrage: Long on anger, short on attention span

What about public outcry -- could that influence high pay? Again, prospective CEOs can put their fears to rest.

The U.S. retail investing public is generally indifferent and does not even monitor the pay votes of mutual fund managers, much less hold them accountable for those made on their behalf. And the Occupy movement (or a successor) would have to significantly expand its reach to truly take CEO pay practices to task.

There is some trouble brewing across the pond. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a binding investor vote on pay (one that would require a response from a company) and some members of Parliament want board compensation committees to have employee representation. There's no immediate threat, though. It took eight years for the U.S. to adopt an advisory say on pay, following in the UK's footsteps.

All in all, it's a rosy picture. So what are you going to do? Any reason you wouldn't aspire to be an S&P 500 CEO?

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board advisory firm. 

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About This Author
Eleanor Bloxham
Eleanor Bloxham
Contributor, Fortune

Eleanor Bloxham, an authority on governance and valuation, is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance, an independent board and executive educational and advisory firm she founded in 1999. She is author of the books Value Led Organizations and Economic Value Management: Applications and Techniques, and publisher of the Corporate Governance Alliance Digest and her blog The Bloxham Voice.

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