Executive perks, those not-so-little extras that chief executives get as fringe benefits, are back in the limelight. It's not that they're up, necessarily, or that they've been retracted in an era of stricter oversight. It's just that corporate boards, wary of being accused of hiding sensitive information, are disclosing more about the fringe benefits they dole out to CEOs.
"More companies have owned up to it this year than have ever owned up to it in the past," said Paul Hodgson, senior research associate at the Corporate Library, a corporate governance research firm.
Regulations intended to put the lid on excessive pay have had the side effect of bringing perks out in the open. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 required independent directors to determine CEO compensation and new accounting rules have cut back on the number of options being granted.
But a host of perks remain from country club dues to financial counseling, tax reimbursements, chauffeured cars and corporate jets. At many companies, the details of these freebies are being reported for the first time.
Some of the perks that local chief executives enjoyed last year, according to their proxy statements, range from nearly $100,000 in personal fitness allowances for Ryland Group Inc. Chief Executive R. Chad Dreier to $364,000 in personal tax planning for Ray Irani, chief executive of Occidental Petroleum Corp.
"Most of this country has to do it on Quicken," Hodgson said. "It seems ridiculous that the mostly highly paid people in the universe can make a case for that to be paid for by the company."
Executives also structure their pay in a way that benefits them in the tax column. Huge portions of paychecks are now listed as deferred payments or long-term payments.
"Deferred compensation is a big one," said Ralph Ward, publisher of Boardroom Insider. "It's putting together various so-called pension packages or shelters primarily for tax reasons for chief executives. That's a perk."
Shifting CEO pay into performance-based categories such as bonus or long-term payouts also allows the company to avoid corporate taxes on salaries above $1 million.
Bruce Karatz, chief executive of KB Home, received $14 million in restricted stock in 2004, compared with a base salary of $1 million and a bonus of $5 million.
Ward said that none of this has displaced traditional perks, which have been swept into an "etcetera" column, lumped in with other benefits so as not to stand out. "Things like jets tend to draw negative attention," he said.
Besides the tax planning help, Irani received $75,000 last year for club dues and about $4,800 for "excess" use of the company aircraft. This is on top of a base salary of $1.3 million, a bonus of $3.3 million and $16.9 million in restricted stock awards not to mention options on 700,000 new shares.
Not included in the amounts was $915,384 Occidental paid last year for security for Irani and four other named executives. The company says the protection is required to safeguard its officers.
Robert Eckert, Mattel's chief executive, gets 60 hours of flight time in the company aircraft for personal trips. That's in addition to "other fringe benefits, including leased automobile, car and driver, personal and home security, first-class travel expenses, company-issued gasoline credit card, financial counseling and tax preparation services and club memberships and dues," according to the April proxy statement.
The company also extended Eckert a $5.5 million loan for his move to California and arranged for the sale of his old home. The loan, plus 7 percent interest, was forgiven after Eckert fulfilled incentives requiring him to stay with Mattel through May 2003. Mattel threw in gross-ups the taxes the company paid on its gift to Eckert so he wouldn't have to totaling another $1.2 million.
Kevin Sharer, chief executive and chairman of Amgen Inc., received almost a half-million dollars in "other compensation" last year. It was detailed in the company's proxy as nearly $217,000 worth of personal use of company aircraft plus several thousand more in tax gross-ups for personal use of company car and driver, plus personal financial counseling.
KB Home was less detailed in its proxy. Chairman and Chief Executive Bruce Karatz receives "certain personal benefits," including financial planning and tax preparation, a car and gas allowance, plus auto insurance. But the company specifies that Securities and Exchange Commission rules allow omission of personal benefits under $50,000. About $113,000 accounted for Karatz's personal use of the company-owned aircraft.
At Ryland Group, Dreier received about $95,000 in personal health, medical and fitness allowance. He also got more than $86,000 worth of use out of the corporate aircraft.
Dreier's base salary is $1 million. He received a bonus of more than $12 million last year and more than $3 million in "other annual" compensation.
One trend Ward noted is that companies may be loading up on the perks in an effort to ease pressure on executive salaries.
As stockholders get impatient with high salaries, Ward said, perks can be camouflaged to look more like benefits. "One thing I've been seeing is more emphasis by CEOs on perks, as opposed to traditional compensation," he said. "Perks tend to be a little bit hidden between the lines."
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