As the final annual reports trickle in, the truly horrific picture of just how much Australia’s richest CEOs were paid last year is being fully revealed. And it’s the usual suspects, including Leighton’s Wal King and Qantas’ Geoff Dixon, who headed the pack for vulgarity. They weren’t alone though, according to a study by the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors of the ASX100 CEOs, only five did not receive bonuses last year — and three of those executives departed from their roles.

King, who has been one of Australia’s best-performing CEOs over the past two decades, does his legacy few favours by receiving one of the most absurd remuneration packages of any executive. While King’s legacy in building Leighton has been remarkable, in recent years performance has slipped. In 2009, the company profit fell by 28% to $440 million. Leighton’s share price also fell during the year. However, the Leighton board still paid King an increased base pay (up to $3.25 million) and a $5 million cash bonus. King also received a “deferred incentive” of $3.2 million.

King is able to receive a $5 million bonus notwithstanding the company’s weaker performance largely due to the complete ineptitude of Leighton’s board (led by Australia Post chairman David Mortimer), which pays King an annual bonus of “up to 1.25% of net profit after tax”.

The problem with this arrangement is that even if Leighton’s profit slumps (like it did last year), King is still paid a huge bonus because remuneration is not in any way linked to actual shareholder returns or earnings per share. For example, if Leighton pays too much to acquire another business, its earnings will increase and King’s bonus will rise, but the more important earnings-per-share will fall. Further, while King was no doubt instrumental in building Leighton to its current position, shareholders could rightfully question whether he should be paid what amounts to a legacy bonus for his performance 10 years ago.

While King’s remuneration is unreasonably lofty, the $3.03 million bonus paid to Greg Goodman in 2008 represented a watermark for sheer audacity. This year, Goodman’s share price slumped by 87% during the year after the company reported a $1.1 billion loss caused by massive asset write-downs and one-off charges. The bonus payment to Goodman also appeared somewhat mystifying given Goodman’s financial report released in August claimed that “no bonuses were awarded to senior executives in respect of the 2008 financial year”. Perhaps it made an exception for its CEO, who, until April 2008, also happened to serve on the company’s remuneration committee.

Geoff Dixon, of course, received $10.7 million last year for serving as CEO for five months, despite Qantas’ total return being worse than the MSCI Airline Index during Dixon’s tenure. Dixon has previously tried to take the airline private with the help of Macquarie, Texas Pacific and Allco. Fortunately for Australian taxpayer, the takeover failed. Unfortunately for Qantas shareholders, Dixon was paid a fortune as the company’s share price slumped and profitability dropped by 88%.

On a more sombre note for lovers of poor corporate governance practices, we bade farewell to Phil Green from the realms of the most overpaid executives. Green, who collected more than $30 million cash over four years while overseeing the destruction of Babcock & Brown (a company once valued at more than $8 billion) will not feature on any lists this year, but that is not because he took a pay cut, but rather, because Babcock as a listed entity no longer exists.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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