Capitalism is alive and well in the corner office, where the pay is mega even if the spotlight shines harshly on chief executive officer compensation packages — and could grow harsher still as companies pursue a purpose beyond profit.
The outsized pay at the top is often most stark when CEOs first step in, with initial stock awards ballooning already rich compensation packages into what can be the triple-digit millions.
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Both Nabi and Jassy received more than 98 percent of their pay in stock awards — the realized value of which will depend on the company’s share price, tying the pay of CEOs to the fortunes of investors.
Stock awards dominated the pay of all the executives topping the list this year, with Warby Parker Inc. co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa each earning $103.6 million compensation packages and The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.’s CEO Fabrizio Freda logging pay of $66 million.
In all, the study found at least 29 CEOs and executive chairs making $10 million or more in fashion. And, while high, in many cases the pay of CEOs in the retail, fashion and beauty sectors still lags that in other industries such as tech and finance. A stock option incentive package gave Elon Musk a $23.5 billion boost, while Apple’s Tim Cook earned $98.7 million while J.P. Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon received $84.4 million and the CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, earned $39.5 million and Morgan Stanley chief James Gorman logged pay of $34.9 million.
Proponents of big pay have long argued that CEOs are superstars with special skills who make big commitments to the company and deserve to be paid for what they offer and the value they create.
It’s an argument that by and large has not swayed the masses.
Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance dove into the public perception of CEO pay in a 2016 survey and found that most Americans believe CEOs are “vastly overpaid” and support “drastic reductions.”
Seventy-four percent of those surveyed believed that CEOs were not paid the correct amount relative to the average worker.
The survey also found that most people underestimated CEO pay, pegging it at $1 million, instead of the average at the time of $9.3 million.
It’s an environment that’s only gotten more charged during the pandemic, when many workers in retail were furloughed and then called essential, but are still feeling the strain even as the gap with CEO pay continues to widen.
Research this year into 300 publicly traded companies in the U.S. by the Institute for Policy Studies showed that the CEO-worker pay gap grew with:
• The average gap between CEO and median worker pay jumping to 670-to-1 from 604-to-1 in 2020.
• Average CEO pay increasing by $2.5 million to $10.6 million as median worker pay increased $3,556 to $23,968.
• Median worker pay not keeping up with the average rate of inflation of 4.7 percent last year at 106 of the firms — or more than one-third of those studied. Inflation is now, of course, almost double that level.
Sarah Anderson, global economy project director at the institute, said: “This notion that it’s the guy in the corner office who’s almost singlehandedly responsible for the company’s value, that’s the notion that’s really propped up these massive CEO paychecks.”
Fashion is indeed a team sport, and Anderson zeroed in on the contribution of “essential” workers who were lauded during the pandemic lockdowns.
“Sustainability should include issues around pay equity,” she said, pointing to a Federal Reserve statistic showing that, in 2020, only 64 percent of Americans could cover a $400 emergency with cash.
“One reason why some people were [in such a precarious position] is because of the corporate-based system that is designed to funnel the rewards upward,” Anderson said. “If we want to be more resilient in the face of future crises of all sorts, whether it’s climate change or financial crisis or a pandemic or whatever, we need to share the rewards.”
Where the popular perception of CEO pay might see greed, executive pay grows out of a complex system that turns on many elements, including perception.
CEOs want to be seen as being paid in line or ahead of their peers to see their hard work — and often a lifetime of striving for the top job — acknowledged. Corporate chiefs also know that tenure at the top can be short and might want to stash away money to fund some post-CEO venture or just to maintain their lifestyles.
Likewise, corporate boards, which are responsible for hiring CEOs, don’t want to be seen as bargain shopping when they’re shaping the future of the multibillion-dollar business in their care.
And so pay goes higher.
When it comes time to work out CEO pay, advisers specializing in the area are hired.
“The board will say, we want to be at median [pay] or above,” said Michael Jenkins, who leads Kearney’s CEO advisory practice. “If you just do the math, the median is going to go up every single year.”
These structural and social issues that have kept pushing CEO pay to the sky highlight the difficulties brands might well face as they continue to pursue a purpose beyond profit and push broader environmental, social and governance issues.
Outsized CEO pay is perhaps the one hot-button topic that boards and the executives themselves could fix immediately — with good PR to boot — if they chose to.
Blame it on human nature or the realities of a competitive market or something else, but they choose not to fix it.
That might not bode well for just how successful companies will be as they tackle issues that run way beyond their control, from climate change to systemic racism.
Jenkins said it’s all about alignment.
“If a purpose-led transformation allows you to be more successful in the marketplace — I can hire better people, I can retain them, I can deliver better profits and as a result, I have more money in the bank — then, yes, that’s about creating alignment between what drives value for my shareholders and what drives value for my stakeholders,” Jenkins said.
“If those two are aligned, then the world is happy,” he said. “Very few shareholders are going to want to fire their leader if they’ve delivered great value for them, but they get a C-plus on the ESG scorecard.
“The CEO pay issue is not an issue in and of itself,” he said. “It is a symptom of the lack of alignment between shareholders and stakeholders and the difficult trade-off between those.”
One thing that seems certain is that CEOs are going to continue to bring home some pretty handsome paychecks — even if they don’t really need the money, but want the recognition — while that alignment is negotiated.
WWD List: Fashion’s C-suite Pay Days
Corporate bigwigs tend to get much of their compensation in the form of stock awards that only pay off if the company performs for all shareholders — but regardless, the monetary rewards at the top are sweet.
2021 Pay (in millions)
Change Vs. Prior Year
The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.
TJX Cos. Inc.
John Donahoe 2nd
executive chairman, chief creative officer
Ralph Lauren Corp.
G-III Apparel Group
Ralph Lauren Corp.
Levi Strauss & Co.
vice chair, CEO
Ross Stores Inc.
former president, CEO
Under Armour Inc.
chairman, president, CEO
American Eagle Outfitters Inc.
Capri Holdings Ltd.
Lululemon Athletica Inc.
Signet Jewelers Ltd.
Victoria’s Secret & Co.
Abercrombie & Fitch Co.
The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.
Source: Company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.