Litigation challenging director pay has made headlines over the past 18 months with shareholders alleging that pay is excessive pay or challenging the processes by which pay is set. The reality is, however, that a new norm of modest pay growth has settled in across American boardrooms, according to the Pearl Meyer/NACD 2015–2016 Director Compensation Report.
Elements of Board Pay Remain Steady
The report, co-produced by NACD and the executive compensation consulting firm Pearl Meyer, reveals that over the past five years, median director pay increased annually at a rate of 3 percent to 5 percent per company, while year-over-year pay increased between 1 percent to 5 percent. This steady but incremental trend is attributable to the typical board practice of only suggesting changes in pay every two to three years. Low- to mid-single-digit pay increases are expected to continue for the next several years unless a significant catalyst for change occurs.
In 2015, the numbers rose slightly from the average, save for micro companies, whose directors saw a compensation increase of 9 percent. Pearl Meyer attributes this jump to minor changes occurring in the constituent companies that are surveyed year over year, and to their volatility as high-growth oriented enterprises that quickly exceed the $500 million mark.
Jannice L. Koors, managing director at Pearl Meyer and head of the firm’s Chicago office, noted that pay practices appear to be reverting to those seen prior to the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX). “The pendulum is swinging back to director compensation in the pre–SOX days, when pretty much all director staff was paid the same,” she said. The concept underscores the board’s unity when, in Koors’ words, “something goes bump in the night.” “If all the board members’ feet are going to be equally held to the fire, then is it really appropriate to have differentiation in how the committee members were paid for that liability risk?” she asked.
Use of Cash Retainers Increases, While Pay for Committee Members Is Limited
Another element that has demonstrated statistical prevalence is the rate of cash retainers for directors across companies. Ninety-seven percent of companies offer cash retainers to their boards as compensation for their service. The cash retainer typically makes up 32 percent to 36 percent of total director compensation (TDC) packages. Equity grants also continue to comprise a large portion of a director’s pay package—93 percent of companies offered grants. Companies of all sizes offered equity grants at a fixed dollar value rather than a fixed number of shares. This practice is perceived to better align directors’ stewardship and oversight responsibilities. When these fixed-value equity awards are included in TDC, the number of shares is typically adjusted to each grant date based on the price of the stock to provide an equivalent value each year.
One standout figure in this year’s data emerged in the differentiation of compensation by committee role. Audit committee chairs received the highest level of compensation across company types at a median level of $20,000, with compensation and governance committee chairs receiving progressively less, at $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.
A similar trend is reflected in the median total compensation figures for all committee members, which includes both retainers and meeting fees. However, the prevalence of compensation for committee members decreases with the size of the company. Members of both the compensation and the nominating and governance committees at Top 200 companies—the largest 200 companies in the S&P 500 by revenue—are not compensated at more than half of the companies surveyed, which results in median compensation of zero dollars for these committees when averaged with those that do provide retainer or meeting fees for committee service.
“I don’t know that I would ever see the trends moving to a place where committee compensation goes away across the board for all companies in all situations, because there are some very legitimate reasons where committee pay actually makes sense and plays a role where the workload isn’t even,” Koors said.
Legal Implications Regarding Pay
Three recent court cases that have either been adjudicated or are in process open the door to potentially significant changes in director pay practices.
In an ongoing case being heard in the Delaware Court of Chancery, shareholders of Citrix Systems have accused directors of awarding themselves excessive equity compensation in a pay plan that was ratified by shareholders in 2005. Shareholders claim that directors failed to accurately and fully disclose several details during the process, specifically the amount or form of compensation to be rewarded to the non-employee directors. Additionally, shareholders allege that only five of the 14 peers selected for comparison in the ratified pay policy were true industry peers.
Directors argued the stockholder ratification defense when seeking to have their case heard under the business judgment rule. The court ruled, however, that the ratified Citrix payment plan was indeed not specific enough, hence disqualifying the Citrix board’s case from being heard under the more deferential business judgment standard.
A case against Goldman Sachs, brought by shareholders before the Delaware Court of Chancery in June, alleged that directors bear the burden of proving the entire fairness of a per-participant limit of 24.75 million shares, which was valued at $2.8 billion when the case was filed. While the same might not be true for Citrix, it appears as though Goldman Sachs based its compensation on a true peer group. A decision is pending.
At Facebook, Chair and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the board came under fire in 2014 for the process used to ratify director pay. That case, which went to trial under the entire fairness standard, argued that Zuckerberg’s deposition and affidavit of approval of the director compensation plan put forth by his board was not valid, as Zuckerberg was acting for the directors as an interested party and violated the rule that such transactions must be approved by a vote at a stockholders meeting or by written consent. Facebook settled in late January after Zuckerberg’s ratification was deemed invalid by the Delaware Chancery Court, and the social media company agreed to stricter oversight of director compensation.
Koors suggests that all boards take the time to ensure their disclosures accurately and clearly reflect the rationale of the director compensation program, with full highlights of their skills, qualifications, demographic diversity, and details on the nomination and board re-evaluation processes. More robust communication regarding director selection and compensation could help mitigate proxy season disruption, as well as protect against the types of litigation described.
Pearl Meyer’s 17th annual survey of non-employee director compensation examines key director compensation elements as collected from 1,400 companies across 24 industries, and derives its findings from proxy and other financial statements that disclose director compensation information for the fiscal year ending between Feb. 1, 2014, and Jan. 21, 2015. Companies were assigned to one of the 24 industries based on their industry classification within Standard & Poor’s Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS). Data for the survey was collected in part by Equilar Inc. Comparisons are made to the Pearl Meyer/NACD 2014–2015 Director Compensation Report. All companies surveyed are publicly traded.
This blog is excerpted from an article originally published in NACD Directorship magazine’s March/April 2016 issue.
Executive compensation is a perpetual hot-button topic and one that activist investors frequently use to court shareholder support for their proposals. In a recent BoardVision video, Semler Brossy managing directors Roger Brossy and Blair Jones talk with Ken Bertsch, partner at CamberView Partners, about the following questions:
What compensation practices are red flags for activists?
What happens when an activist investor, or their representative, joins a board?
What are some practical considerations for boards and compensation committees?
Here are some highlights from that conversation.
Roger Brossy: [Activists have] $200 billion under management in various funds. We could see, at current pace, as many as 700 campaigns in corporate America led by activists. Blair, what does executive compensation have to do with this?
Blair Jones: It certainly is not the primary issue that an activist is using as they pursue a company, but it is a hook to engage other investors and also to engage the public at large if it’s a very public fight. The kind of thing they’re looking at is the magnitude of pay. So they would look at the “how much is too much?” question. They might look at certain elements of pay, like retirement or special supplemental retirement benefits, that only executives get. They love to look at pay and performance. Their favorite chart is a pay level that stays steady or even goes up, contrasted against a performance level that’s going down. That’s one of their key areas of focus and interest. They like to look at whether the metrics that they care about are included in the compensation programs, and they also look at say-on-pay votes. And if the company has a pattern of lower say-on-pay votes, it’s often an indication that there may be other governance problems underlying some of the decision-making at the company.
Brossy: Ken, we’ve engaged with activists who are very, very thoughtful about executive pay and have a very reasoned point of view about what the structure of programs ought to look like. But we’ve also been in situations where it felt like stagecraft, and we weren’t sure there was a lot of conviction. Maybe it was more just sort of a point to embarrass or try to curry favor with others. How do you see this fitting in?
Ken Bertsch: Well, I saw both things happen. This is a bit of a campaign—a political campaign—and people use things in campaigns that may make people look bad, which might not always be authentic to what’s going on. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to overstate that, because I think executive pay does often get to, or is linked to, underlying strategy. Blair talked about discussion of metrics and what makes sense. If the investor has a view on what’s going wrong at the company and the pay strategy fits into that, that’s going to be a useful—and in some ways illuminating—piece of the campaign. So I think it’s both things, and it makes it hard to deal with.
Brossy: So what is your advice for boards?
Bertsch: Number one, be as clear as possible about executive pay. Disclosures have gotten a lot better in recent years, and I think that’s very important. Why are people being paid what they’re paid, and what’s the strategy behind it? How does it link to the company strategy? A lot of the investors who are not activists but [are] potentially voting on activism, that’s what they care about. So you want to be logical about what you’re doing. I think you want to avoid some of the practices that tend to get a lot of criticism. I think, also, you want to listen to the activists, to your shareholders, and try to hear if there is merit in the arguments being made.
Brossy: Blair, when we’ve had boards take activist slates into the board, obviously a very unusual and interesting environment ensues. People who might have been in sort of antagonistic public stand[off]s with each other are now looking to find a constructive way forward, and there may be a variety of points of views or degrees of willingness to have that happen. What should compensation committees do at that stage as they’re taking new members onto the board and potentially onto the compensation committee?
Jones: I think that’s a great question, and one of the most important things is to get a clear articulation of the philosophy of the compensation program. It’s important for the new board members to hear the history of how you got to where you did, but it’s also important for the whole board to talk about where the program is and to either affirm where they are or say there are some things that need to change. They do that as a group where they’re revisiting it. I think that’s job number one.
I think job number two is to … think about the people and the talent. Considering we’re in the situation we’re in, do we have any talent out there that we need to shore up and ask to stay and work with us through the process of taking this company into the next era? That may mean looking at things like severance arrangements so people feel like they have some protection. It may be selective retention or special programs that have new measures related to whatever the objectives of activists’ campaign were.
On August 5, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission released its final pay-ratio rule under the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (hereafter Dodd–Frank). The announcement comes more than five years after Congress passed Dodd–Frank in July 2010 and nearly two years after the SEC first proposed the pay-ratio rule in September 2013. The release describing the new rule is a 294-page document that will be analyzed and applied in the weeks and months to come. Meanwhile, here are some basic FAQs to help boards and compensation committees understand the implications of this much-anticipated development.
What disclosure will the new rule require?
While the release explaining it demands further study, the new rule can be summarized as follows:
Companies will be required to disclose the ratio of the median pay of all employees, excluding the “principal executive officer” (in most cases, the CEO), to the total pay of that principal executive officer for the most recently completed fiscal year, as disclosed in that year’s summary compensation table. The calculation for median employee pay can be made for any time during the last three months of the year.
The final rule defines employees as “any U.S. and non-U.S. full-time, part-time, seasonal, or temporary worker (including officers other than the [CEO]) employed by the registrant or any of its subsidiaries as of the last day of the registrant’s last completed fiscal year” (p. 216). Like the proposed rule, the final rule allows statistical sampling and estimates as long as these are “reasonable” (p. 14). Although the word reasonable appears at least 100 times in the release announcing the rule, it is not defined because the SEC believes that “companies would be in the best position to determine what is reasonable in light of their own employee population and access to compensation data.”The ratio would have to appear in any filing that requires executive compensation disclosure, including 10-K annual reports, registration statements, and proxy statements. The SEC final rule specifically mentions the compensation discussion and analysis (CD&A) and the summary compensation table. “In this manner, the pay ratio information will be presented in the same context as other information that shareholders can use in making their voting decisions on executive compensation” (p. 39).
When will the new rule go into effect?
Companies must begin reporting the new data in the first fiscal year beginning on or after January 1, 2017. The pay ratio will appear in the 2018 proxy statement disclosing compensation for 2017. After that, companies will be required to update the disclosure at least once every three years.
To whom will the new rule apply?
The new rule will apply to all U.S. public companies but exempts smaller reporting companies (defined as having a public float of less than $75 million) and emerging growth companies (defined as a having total annual gross revenues of less than $1 billion during their most recently completed fiscal year). It also exempts foreign companies (including Canadian companies listing in the United States) and investment companies (mutual funds). The rule also contains an exemption for U.S.-based global companies that cannot access the median pay data due to foreign data-privacy laws. New public companies would not need to comply with the new rule until their first annual report and proxy statement after they register with the SEC.
What aspects of the rule are likely to raise concerns in boardrooms?
In a comment letter filed on December 1, 2013, NACD expressed concerns that the rule defined the term employees too broadly. We encouraged the SEC to increase the flexibility of the pay-ratio rule by permitting the use of industry averages, by defining employees as full-time U.S. employees, and by permitting supplemental notes to correct any distortions caused by the use of “total pay” figures. The SEC’s final rule does not specifically authorize the use of industry averages, although it appears to permit their use to supplement company-based data. Nor does the final rule exclude part-time workers or foreign workers, allowing an exclusion of only up to 5 percent of a non-U.S. workforce.
In combination, these factors in the final rule may cause the ratio of median employee to CEO pay to appear relatively small in industries that employ part-time or non-U.S. workers. Over time an industry pattern may emerge, but initially there could be a hit to reputation. Boards can start now in preparing for potential impact on company reputation and employee morale.
What do boards and committees need to do in the short term?
First, board members should become familiar with the requirements of the new rule, with help from their compensation committees and their compensation advisor. Then they will be in a position to ask informed questions. Compensation committees can begin by asking their chief human resources officer (CHRO) and chief financial officer (CFO) the following questions:
Do we have the information available to calculate the two numbers required for the ratio so that the board can begin its analysis? What technical and definitional issues, if any, may arise in this calculation, and what support might you need to resolve those issues? What is your rough estimate of the cost of calculation (e.g., staff time, data systems requirements, and/or third-party analysis)?
Will you work with an external compensation firm or other external consultant (such as a payroll expert) to determine the ratio?
Can the external advisor estimate the ratios of peer companies on the basis of publicly available data? What are the pros and cons of having the company’s consultant collaborate with the board’s compensation advisor in calculating such estimates?
Similarly, they might consider asking the following two questions of the independent firm that advises the board on CEO and senior management pay:
What information, if any, is currently available on estimated ratios of employee/
CEO pay for our industry peers so we know where we stand?
If you will be working with the company’s external advisor in collecting relevant data and/or preparing estimated ratio information (if one is retained by CHRO/
CFO), would such activity be perceived as compromising your independence under current SEC rules? If so, how can we proactively counteract such a perception?
Having gained insights from these initial questions, directors might want to consider the following:
How comprehensive and compelling are our current published disclosures about our pay philosophy? Have we clearly communicated the link between our strategy, pay plan design, and pay outcomes?
Does our pay philosophy include employee pay beyond the executive level? Are there opportunities to address this issue in a more detailed way? For example, does our published pay philosophy specifically discuss the issue of pay distribution patterns and/or “fairness”? If not, is this something we might consider addressing?
What information, if any, have we received from surveys regarding employee satisfaction with compensation levels?
What feedback, if any, have we received from our major shareholders about our compensation plan and our pay-for-performance track record? If we have heard concerns, what have we done to resolve them?
If the early estimated ratio for total pay appears out of proportion to any available estimates for our peers and/or industry, how should we interpret this discrepancy? What would this tell us about the structure of our reward system?
What would be the impact of early voluntary disclosure?
What implications might this new rule have for D&O liability?
Any new disclosure rule immediately triggers potential director liability, absent a safe harbor provision. Although shareholder lawsuits against companies are often triggered by weak stock prices, the putative grounds for lawsuits are usually based on alleged disclosure violations, particularly in changes-of-control. For more on D&O litigation, see the May–June 2015 issue of NACD Directorship.
Is the new rule likely to be challenged?
It is possible that trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may try to get the rule vacated by a federal court. In a statement released via e-mail on August 5, David Hirschmann, president of the Chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, stated, “We will continue to review the rule and explore our options for how best to clean up the mess it has created.” In the past this type of cleanup has meant legal action. In July 2011, the Chamber joined the Business Roundtable to successfully vacate a proxy access rule under Dodd–Frank that would have mandated a particular form of shareholder access to director nominations via the proxy ballot. Similarly, in April 2014, the National Association of Manufacturers and others succeeded in getting a court to declare an aspect of the conflict minerals rule under Dodd–Frank to be a violation of free speech.
What long-term impact might the new rule have on human capital at corporations?
Compliance with the new rule is important, but the core issue for companies remains the same: developing a pay structure, at all levels of the organization, that is aligned with the firm’s strategy and aimed at long-term value creation. Sustained corporate performance is based in large part on human talent, and compensation is one of the key factors in motivating employees. Furthermore, payroll and benefits represent a significant percentage of capital allocation at many companies. For these reasons, among others, many boards will likely take a greater interest in pay at lower levels, and they will want independent verification of a wider band of pay practices. More broadly, a growing number of boards are stepping up their oversight of management’s talent development activities across the organization. For guidance, directors can turn to the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Talent Development.
What resources does NACD have to help compensation committees cope with this and other current compensation matters?
NACD will continue to monitor the pay-ratio disclosure issue and other Dodd–Frank compliance matters as they evolve, providing further guidance and perspective on these and related matters.
 “Consistent with the proposal, the final rule does not specify any required methodology for registrants to use in identifying the median employee. Instead, the final rule permits registrants the flexibility to choose a method to identify the median employee based on their own facts and circumstances“ (p. 113). “The proposed rule did not prescribe specific estimation techniques or confidence levels for identifying the median employee because we believed that companies would be in the best position to determine what is reasonable in light of their own employee population and access to compensation data” (p. 98).
 Note: “Fairness” was one of the five principles of pay recommended by NACD in the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Executive Compensation (2003), and was also cited in the more recent Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on the Compensation Committee (2015).