No sign of CEOs tightening their own belts

Sep 08 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Britain's boardroom high flyers can still command top-notch salaries and, if anything, the downturn is making it more likely that firms will be prepared to pay to keep hold of their top talent.

According to a study by consultancy firm Deloitte, while salary increases for FTSE-350 executive directors have slowed as a whole compared with last year, "business superstars" can still command a premium.

The average increase for executive directors as a whole was now 6.2 per cent, against seven per cent a year ago, it found, indicating that the economic climate was putting pressure on what companies could afford to pay their top managers, as Carol Arrowsmith, partner and head of the remuneration team at Deloitte, explained.

"Executive salary increases during 2007 were still around two per cent higher than increases in RPI and average earnings but we are starting to see the impact of a tougher economic climate on salary increases," she said.

Nevertheless, the gap between the potential remuneration of the chief executive and the rest of the board was increasing, the research added.

Chief executives in a third of FTSE-100 companies and a fifth of FTSE-250 companies were now on higher annual and long-term incentive opportunities than other board members.

"One can think of many examples, particularly in the sporting world, of individuals with exceptional talent who can command a high premium," said Arrowsmith.

"Previous economic downturns have demonstrated that there are talented leaders who can genuinely change the fortunes of businesses and we expect that 2008/09 will see companies focusing on finding, and retaining, those individuals," she added.

Some companies had introduced one-off bespoke remuneration arrangements, either to achieve specific business objectives or retain highly sought after individuals, she pointed out.

"These kinds of bespoke arrangements or special payments will be subject to close scrutiny by shareholders and it is important that the reasons for these arrangements are very carefully communicated," Arrowsmith pointed out.

"But, where the rationale is clear, shareholders are likely to be supportive of arrangements. They will, after all, want to attract and retain individuals who can deliver shareholder value and out-perform in the current environment," she added.

Deloitte also found that remuneration in the very largest UK companies was moving away from the rest of the FTSE 100 companies.

The typical salary of a chief executive of a top 30 company was now well over £1m, compared with a typical salary of £750,000 in a FTSE-100 company outside the top 30.

Executive directors in the top 30 companies also had potential incentives worth a further four times salary compared with an incentive potential of 2.75 times salary in other FTSE-100 companies.

"When companies are competing on an international playing field, remuneration arrangements must reflect that international dimension," argued Arrowsmith.

"Having said that, it does suggest the need for caution on the part of both remuneration committees and advisers when looking at suitable comparator groups for benchmarking purposes," she added.

"Over the past year we have seen salaries continue to increase ahead of inflation, increases in both annual and long-term incentive opportunity as well as higher payouts.

"But it is possible that we have now reached the high water mark and that the world of executive remuneration may begin to change," she continued.

For many companies, meeting performance targets set two or three years ago was now going to be much harder than anticipated, leading to the possibility of tension as the gap widens between the expectations of shareholders and executives widened.

"Shareholders expect executives to feel pain when times are tougher. But executives may feel that a long-term incentive plan that does not pay out for more than one or two years is broken," said Arrowsmith.

"Remuneration committees may need to do some soul searching to ensure that the aims of the incentive plan remain clear, that performance measures continue to support a business strategy which, as market pressures grow, may be in a state of change and that performance targets remain realistic but stretching," she added.

A quarter of FTSE-100 and a fifth of FTSE-250 companies also increased the size of the annual bonus in the past year, while a fifth of FTSE-100 companies and a tenth of FTSE-250 companies increased the size of their long-term share award, she pointed out.

The median potential annual bonus is now 150 per cent of salary in FTSE-100 companies and 185 per cent of salary in the top 30 UK companies, but remained at 100 per cent of salary in FTSE-250 companies.

The amount actually earned had also increased. In the most recent financial period, the bonus payout was typically around 70-80 per cent of the maximum possible.

More than three quarters of plans paid out in excess of the target level and only around six per cent of executive directors received no annual bonus payout in the period, Deloitte found.

"The increase in annual bonus payouts is somewhat surprising given that the bonus potential is now so much bigger although it is true to say that, for many companies, payments in the most recent financial period may not have been affected to any great extent by the recent economic downturn," said Sally Cooper, associate partner and remuneration specialist at Deloitte.

"Shareholders will be looking very carefully at the levels of payout in the coming year and will expect to see a very strong link between payout and performance," she added.

Earlier this month, research among FTSE-100 companies by corporate remuneration consultancy Patterson Associates questioned the assumption that if you want a high-performing leader you need to pay for it.

It argued that In fact it made little odds what you paid your chief executive, with under-performers often as generously rewarded as the best.