New CEOs at troubled firms earn top pay

/ Source: The Associated Press

CEOs who take over a company in crisis are like plumbers who get an emergency call on a stormy Sunday night: They can charge whatever they want. And they usually do.

Nearly one in 10 chief executives in the Standard & Poor’s 500 was new to the job last year. Many were planned successions. For instance, Ian M. Cook, 55, replaced Reuben Mark, 69, at Colgate-Palmolive Co. when Mark retired on July 1, a date set months in advance.

Homegrown replacements like Cook, who had been groomed for the job for years, don’t command above-average pay packages. He earned $8.3 million as CEO in 2007, close to the median pay for the leaders of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies, according to an Associated Press analysis.

But newcomers at companies in crisis — where the previous CEO resigned hastily and the board is thrashed by red ink and beset by angry investors — charge accordingly.

With stock prices falling and whiteboards full of hard decisions to make, boards offer rich compensation packages to get the new chief on board quickly.

Hired to clean up a company
Consider John Thain at Merrill Lynch & Co., Vikram Pandit at Citigroup Inc. and Glenn Murphy at Gap Inc., all of whom were well compensated in 2007 for taking what amounted to high-profile clean-up jobs.

Thain joined Merrill on Dec. 1 after former CEO Stan O’Neal was ousted following steep losses and credit write-downs. Thain’s total pay was $83.9 million in 2007, making him the most highly compensated CEO of the 410 companies in the AP’s database.

Pandit came to Citigroup in December after former CEO Charles Prince fell to the credit crises. Pandit’s 2007 pay was $3.16 million. However, Citi’s board awarded him $102 million in cash, stock and options in January. If the awards had been paid in December, it would have made him the highest paid CEO for the year.

Murphy was hired by Gap in July to replace interim CEO Robert Fisher, the company’s co-founder, who took the job following the exit of Paul Pressler in early 2007. Murphy’s total pay, $39.07 million in 2007, ranks No. 9.

The cheapest emergency CEO comes at just $1 for the year. It’s Jerry Yang, the co-founder of Yahoo Inc., who replaced Terry Semel last June when Semel was ousted over the stock’s decline — and his hefty pay.

Semel ranked No. 1 for 2006 pay on The AP’s list, with total compensation of $71.7 million. While Yang’s current pay is modest, he’s a man of means. His 3.9 percent stake in Yahoo is worth $1.4 billion.

Can new CEOs turn companies around?
While it’s too soon to judge success for the new CEOs, the storms that drove the former leaders out haven’t passed. Merrill, the world’s largest brokerage, reported its third straight quarterly loss in April. Citigroup’s first-quarter loss totaled $5.1 billion. At Gap, sales at stores open for a least a year continued to slide, but thanks to cost-cutting and inventory management, the company reported a 40 percent increase in first-quarter profits.

If the three CEOs can successfully turn around the companies, their compensation may be viewed as a footnote, a small percentage of earnings. If not, it may be viewed as another sign that the market for CEOs is far from perfect.

“It’s like going out and comparing ties, or comparing laundry detergent,” said Tom Donaldson, an ethics and law professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“If you have some sense of what you’re buying, you compare and buy the best quality for the price.” But if your company is in crisis, he said “You don’t have time to look, don’t have time to compare. It’s a strange and imperfect market.”