Who might be the Seattle-area CEO with the biggest payday last year?
Hint: The company he runs is not even based in the U.S.
Second hint: Its primary product can’t be imported.
Final hint: This story about a CEO finding the pot of gold is coming at you shortly before 420 Day.
Proxy statements from many Pacific Northwest companies are still coming in, but few are likely to top the 2018 compensation reported by Brendan Kennedy, the Seattle-based CEO of Canadian marijuana merchant Tilray.
His total 2018 compensation was $31 million, according to the proxy statement filed by Tilray this week. As often is the case with large CEO pay packages, most of Kennedy’s payday is in the form of stock options rather than cash, and doesn’t represent money he can walk away with today.
For comparison, Microsoft reported in October that CEO Satya Nadella was paid $25.8 million in the previous fiscal year, while Starbucks said in January that CEO Kevin Johnson’s total compensation last fiscal year was about $13.4 million.
When The Seattle Times reported last summer on 2017’s best-paid Pacific Northwest CEOs, the top earner was Mark Okerstrom, the new CEO of Expedia Group. He received $30.7 million, also mostly in the form of stock and options that will vest over several years if he hits performance goals.
Newly hired CEOs — and CEOs of newly public companies like Tilray — often pop to the top of pay rankings their first year because Securities and Exchange Commission rules require their option and stock awards to be included when they are granted.
Tilray shares took off like a rocket after its July initial public offering on Nasdaq, soaring from $20 to $300 within two months as Canada legalized recreational pot. At its September peak, the company was briefly worth more than American Airlines.
The stock has since ratcheted back down to the vicinity of $50. Even at its current diminished level, Tilray’s market capitalization is about $4.5 billion — high for a company with nine-month revenues of just $27.6 million and a net loss of $36.7 million. A Tilray spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
But prospects for cannabis in Canada seem good, and Tilray is also extending itself into international markets where medical marijuana has been legalized. It also has struck strategic deals outside the marijuana sector, such as one with beer giant Anheuser Bush-InBev to research nonalcoholic beverages containing cannabidiol or CBD, a compound derived from marijuana that doesn’t cause a high but is thought to have medicinal qualities.
Kennedy is in an unusual position — he’s both the CEO of Tilray and the executive chairman and largest stockholder of Privateer Holdings, the Seattle private equity firm that controls 91 percent of Tilray’s voting shares.
Executive pay consultant Fred Whittlesey notes that Kennedy was granted two sets of options last year — in May, 3 million options with a strike price of $7.76, and in August, 343,735 at a strike price of $65.20. Those latter options are underwater at the moment, indicating how transitory the total compensation reported under SEC rules can sometimes be.
Kennedy’s actual take-home pay was more modest: $850,000 in cash and bonus.
But with Kennedy’s dual roles, says Whittlesey, “Tilray can pay Kennedy anything he wants, since he appears to control the firm that controls Tilray.”
Of course, it’s possible someone like T-Mobile US CEO John Legere (second after Okerstrom in last year’s rankings, with $20.6 million in total compensation) could clock in with a higher figure this year.
Or, it could be somebody totally unexpected. Stay tuned.