Former King Broadcasting CEO Steven Clifford lays bare the generous buffet of pay packages that today’s CEOs enjoy, and recommends a strict diet. Also: Microsoft works with Dubai to produce the ‘Dubai Font’ — just don’t use it to express anything the monarchy there might dislike.
It’s not often that a CEO turns against his own kind. But Steven Clifford, former head of Seattle’s King Broadcasting Corp., is fomenting a revolt against the king’s ransom that U.S. corporate leaders routinely collect these days.
“As a CEO, I was overpaid, but not enough. As a director of a dozen companies, I was overpaid, but not enough,” Clifford writes wryly in his new book on the subject. “I now bite the hand that fed me for many years.”
His call to arms, “The CEO Pay Machine: How It Trashes America and How to Stop It” (Blue Rider Press/Penguin, $23), publishes May 8.
With examples drawn from the ranks of the highest-paid American CEOs this decade, he takes on the executives, board members and consultants who cook up such a generous buffet of bonus schemes that any CEO can be judged above average — and get rewarded accordingly.
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(In 2015, that reward was an average of $19 million for the 200 highest-paid chief executives at U.S. companies with annual revenue of at least $1 billion, according to The New York Times. The nation’s best-paid CEO in 2015 was Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Bellevue-based online travel company Expedia, whose total compensation was $94.6 million.)
Depending on the data set used, Clifford writes, large-company CEOs in 2014 were paid an average of $13.5 million or $22.6 million — “somewhere between 300 and 700 times more than the average worker made.” That contrasts with a multiple of 26 back in the 1970s.
In an interview, Clifford said he himself was never paid more than 20 times the average worker at the two private companies he led, King Broadcasting and National Mobile Television. He was on the board — and the compensation committee — at companies both public and private.
While acknowledging the politics of the moment don’t seem ripe for an anti-CEO insurrection, he says, “I’m hoping that it can become a political issue.”
“Income inequality in this country is surging, and it seems to me this is one of the more outrageous examples and causes of it. This should be the low-hanging fruit when it comes to restraining income inequality.”
Clifford contrasts the typical managerial CEO with the handful of American company builders whose names we all know. (“There are great CEOs. In my hometown of Seattle, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Howard Schultz of Starbucks are superb.”)
He points out that such founders typically run their companies for many years and imprint their vision and personality on the company.
The average Fortune 500 CEO, on the other hand, runs a company for only 4.6 years. Yet that person gets rewarded with tens of millions of dollars as if he or she is an extremely scarce commodity — even though, Clifford argues, “at large, well-managed companies … there are always many talented CEO candidates” and they are more likely to be interchangeable than uniquely qualified.
Clifford’s book is enlivened by equal doses of whimsy and scorching rhetoric. But its main task is to pry apart the mechanisms by which companies enable CEOs to collect vast sums with little downside risk.
Stock options, pay-for-performance bonuses — these standard dishes at the CEO buffet are examined and denounced. Stock options have “completely misaligned the CEO with shareholders” because the executive “loses nothing if the stock goes down,” thus encouraging short-term bet-the-farm thinking rather than long-term strategy, he said.
Pay for performance, as practiced at U.S. corporations, is typically a sham with too-easy benchmarks and too many alternative ways of reaching them, Clifford argues.
His prescription is boringly simple: “salary plus restricted stock. No pay for specific performance, no short-term bonus, no stock options … no after-the-fact adjustments by the board, and no pay consultants.”
To tighten the screws further, the restricted stock should ideally be two-thirds of the total compensation, vesting over at least five years and much of it collectible only if shareholders did better with their stock than the S&P 500 index did.
Though that may sound like harsh medicine to the CEO class, Clifford argues that it’s crucial for the health of the American economy.
— Rami Grunbaum: email@example.com
Dubai, Microsoft collaborate on font
A week ago, the government of Dubai introduced the Dubai Font — a new, if not particularly distinctive, typeface for Microsoft’s Office 365, created with the aid of the technology giant — and invited people to use it to #ExpressYou.
That’s a task citizens might find difficult in the Persian Gulf monarchy, which lacks free-speech protections and has a habit of arresting government critics, a contrast observers were quick to jump on.
The oil-rich United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, “often uses its affluence to mask the government’s serious human-rights problems,” including arbitrary detention and torture of people who criticize the authorities, according to Human Rights Watch.
The UAE also shows up as a country of concern in U.S. State Department reports on human trafficking, which highlight the occasional use of forced labor, nonpayment of wages, and physical and sexual abuse of the migrant workers who make up 95 percent of the labor force.
Dubai’s crown prince, Hamdan Bin Mohammed, struck a different tone in a news release to announce the font. The new typeface, he said, reflected the personality of the emirate, “whose vision revolves around giving, happiness, smartness, boldness, living in harmony,” among other virtues.
The heir to the throne added that he “personally (oversaw) all the stages of the development of this font.”
The font, which includes characters in both Arabic and Latin, will be integrated into Microsoft’s Office 365 suite.
Dubai Font is the first Microsoft typeface created for, and named after, a city. Its lead designer — Nadine Chahine of Woburn, Massachusetts, typeface design firm Monotype — says it’s also the first time Microsoft has ever collaborated with a government on a typeface design.
In this case, those resources included the aid of Si Daniels, a manager in Microsoft’s Office group.
Chahine said in a Facebook post that the project would not have been possible without Daniels, who flew to Dubai for initial meetings.
A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions on the record about the company’s role, instead issuing a statement indicating the company routinely offers “technical resources to ensure custom fonts are accurately rendered.”
Samer Abu Ltaif, president of Microsoft’s Middle East and Africa sales subsidiary, was on hand for the unveiling of the font, and was quoted in the release calling the font “a great example of successful collaborations between the public and private sectors.”
“This reinforces the vision of Dubai, which aims to become one of the most inclusive cities,” he said.
Microsoft’s benefits from the endeavor were apparently limited to Abu Ltaif’s photo opportunity with Dubai’s leadership.
No money changed hands between the Dubai government and Microsoft as part of the project, according to a person familiar with the matter.