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By Rejecting Severance, AIG’s Ex-CEO Shines a Light on Exec Pay Debate

September 23, 2008
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Global Business Issues, Compensation Design and Communication, Latest News
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Although former AIG CEO Robert Willumstad’s surprise decision to reject a $22 million severance package may be an encouraging sign for opponents of large executive pay packages, don’t expect other chief executives of failing companies to do the same, a research manager said.

The government’s role in saving AIG from bankruptcy last week may have put pressure on Willumstad to forgo the severance, some observers say, especially since he served as CEO for only three months. But his action has brought more attention to the heated debate over the appropriate level of compensation for CEOs of failing companies.

“There is definitely a trend of some companies cutting back on some of these severance packages, especially for newer executives,” said Equilar research manager Alexander Cwirko-Godycki.

For example, Merrill Lynch eliminated all severance payments for change-in-control scenarios shortly after former CEO Stanley O’Neal walked away with $161 million when he was ousted last year. As a result, O’Neal’s replacement, John Thain, will receive $11 million in accelerated stock awards and salary if he leaves the company after the $50 billion sale of Merrill closes early next year, but he won’t get any additional severance payments as a result of the change in control.

Cwirko-Godycki said that because of increased scrutiny of executive pay, “New employment contracts tend to be less generous [with severance] than existing contracts and contracts of a generation ago.”

News reports said Willumstad felt compelled to forgo his severance package because he was unable to initiate a turnaround in the short time he was CEO. His decision also took into account the major hit that AIG employees and investors have suffered from the decline in the insurer’s stock price.

Cwirko-Godycki also suggested that because the government jumped in to save AIG, board members may have feared actions would be taken to curtail Willumstad’s executive compensation, similar to those taken with the outgoing CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He said it was possible that Willumstad arrived at his decision in consultation with the AIG board to keep the government from taking action and limit shareholder anger.

“It was easy to foresee that there would be a tremendous amount of concern over a severance package of that size,” said Cwirko-Godycki.

But while there seems to be a move toward limiting severance packages, he said that for now, the trend is most visible among companies caught up in the credit crisis. “In most sectors and at most companies, if an executive is asked to leave without cause, they are going to get what they are contractually owed.”

Filed by Matthew Scott of Financial Week, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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