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March Highlights (and Lowlights) in Executive Compensation

Every day, Michelle Leder and the crew at Footnoted.com come through Securities and Exchange Commission filings in search of illuminating news and nuggets from corporate America. Every month she joins us to discuss some of the highlights — and lowlights — in executive compensation. March came in like a lion — with hefty compensation packages for CEOs at old school blue-chip companies like McDonald's, IBM, Sears, and at newbies like Zynga.

Supersize Send-off at McDonald's. For some employees, McDonald's remains the Golden Arches. In late March, Jim Skinner, the chief executive officer of the vast restaurant chain, announced he would retire after more than seven years running the company. And his sending off will include a package that should keep him in Happy Meals for years to come. Footnoted.com's sleuths combed through the complicated disclosures to calculate Skinner's going-away package. "Our final, back-of-the-envelope tally: a minimum of $82.3 million for retirement." This may be the rare instance in which shareholders may not grumble about a rich retirement package. Skinner spent nearly 40 years at the company. And as this five-year chart shows, the stock performed remarkably well under his stewardship.

IBM's Palmisano Equation. It may sound like the name of a Big Bang Theory episode. But it's really the effort to tally the retirement package of former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, whose nine-year stint at the head of Big Blue came to a fruitful close last year. As Footnoted found, the compensation is so complicated you need a mainframe to crunch all the data. But Palmisano, who joined the company in 1973, is being amply rewarded for his nearly four decades of labor: $91.9 million in stock options he's accumulated but hasn't exercised, $22.5 million from a "retention plan," a supplemental executive retirement plan ($34 million) and some $68.6 million that had built up in a deferred-compensation account. All in, "when Palmisano ultimately leaves IBM, he's very likely to receive a package of cash and stock of $224.7 million, using December 31, 2011, data." Here's a five-year chart of the company's stock.

The Softer Side of Sears. McDonald's and IBM stand as two examples of established, iconic firms that have managed to prosper in the evolving business climate. The large retailer Sears stands as an example of an established, iconic firm that hasn't managed to do so. (Here's the depressing five-year stock chart that proves it.) Under the ownership of hedge fund genius Edward Lampert, Sears has flailed about in search of a winning strategy and gone through several executives. The latest boss of Sears is CEO Louis J. D'Ambrosio, who was named to the top spot in February 2011. D'Ambrosio is surely being paid amply for his services. But shareholders are providing him with a nice perk. Rather than move from his home in Philadelphia to the Chicago area, D'Ambrosio has joined the ranks of super-commuters, flying back-and-forth between his home on the east coast and his office in the Midwest. Via corporate or chartered jet, naturally. "The cost to shareholders for D'Ambrosio's commute? In 2011, it added up to $793,224, plus tens of thousands more for ground transportation, corporate housing, vehicles in Chicago, and a tax gross-up."

Welcome to Farmville! There are lots of reasons for young employees to jump from established technology firms to new positions at smaller, younger ones: cool offices, free food, and the prospects of an impending initial public offering. Senior executives often receive additional incentives, like tons of cash. Last month, Barry Cottle, a senior executive at video game maker Electronic Arts, signed on with Zynga, the newly public online social game company, as executive vice president for business and corporate development. The maker of Farmville is providing Cottle with some currency he can use in the real world. Combing through a Zynga filing, Footnoted found that Cottle is getting a $2 million signing bonus, a guaranteed bonus of $250,000 per quarter for the first year, and securities that convert into Zynga common stock over the next five years. Zynga's stock has been volatile since it went public last December. But at March prices, the stock awards were worth about $26.2 million.

Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance

Follow him on Twitter @grossdm; email him at grossdaniel11@yahoo.com

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