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Collectively, shareholders of North Carolina’s largest public companies have something to cheer about as their returns have begun to outpace CEO pay increases, according to Business North Carolina’s annual ranking of executive compensation. In fact, the 75 largest companies reported a median three-year total shareholder return of 13.8%, while median total CEO compensation increased just 10.8% in the latest fiscal year. “There seems to be a strong tie between compensation increases and company performance when looking at a company’s revenue and earnings per share,” says Hunter Guice, senior associate of compensation and benefits consulting in the Charlotte office of Grant Thornton LLP, which compiled this year’s list. Median earnings per share more than doubled to $1.22 from $0.53 the year before. Total cash compensation — base salary and bonuses — rose 6.4%, slower than the year before. That’s a sign that companies are relying more on incentive compensation to boost CEO pay.
Pressure had been building for years amid public outcry that executive pay was out of whack with shareholder returns and only intensified during the recession, leading Congress to pass the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010. The law requires companies to submit executive pay packages to shareholders at least every three years. But these votes, which consider stock performance and other factors, are nonbinding, and disapproval has been the exception, not the rule. Sixty-nine of BNC’s Top 75 public companies have had a say-on-pay vote or were in the process of doing so, according to a Grant Thornton analysis of proxy statements. Not one has failed to pass. The average approval rate for those reporting a percentage was 93%; fewer than 10% received less than 90% approval. “A vast majority of North Carolina public-company shareholders approve of executive compensation, even in a still-turbulent market,” says Patricia Hale Botoff, director of compensation and benefits consulting in Grant Thornton’s Raleigh office.
Even Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp. received 92% approval in a say-on-pay vote despite the company coming under fire from federal officials and losing shareholder value last year. Institutional investors hold most of its shares. Though chief executive Brian Moynihan did not get a raise in salary or bonus, his total compensation vaulted him from 48th to 12th in the ranking in his second year at the helm of the nation’s second-largest bank by assets. Chiquita Brands International Inc., which is moving its headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte and is not on this year’s list, made news when shareholders rejected its compensation plan by a nearly 4-to-1 margin. CEO Fernando Aguirre announced in August that he would step down once a replacement is found.
Greensboro cigarette maker Lorillard Inc.’s CEO took the top spot this year after a transition in leadership, with Murray Kessler ranking No.1 after his first full year at the company. Susan Ivey — last year’s highest-paid CEO — retired, and her replacement at Winston-Salem-based Reynolds American Inc., Daniel Delen, was ninth in his first year on the list.
Download a full list of the CEO pay list here.