Human Capital & Careers

A Matter of Perception

CFO compensation is up and down. That should make shareholders and finance chiefs happy, which is no easy feat.
Russ BanhamOctober 1, 2010

There is no question that executive compensation is a delicate topic these days, one that is garnering both intense regulatory scrutiny and increased shareholder control. But it appears that boards of directors may have found a clever way to appease both the public and their executives. According to this year’s tally of CFO pay, finance chiefs are in an enviable position: they have a good story to tell investors about the austerity of their compensation even as they take home healthy paychecks.

Viewed through one lens, it certainly appears that CFOs “are working harder for what is essentially less compensation,” as Deb Nielsen, director of executive compensation at, points out. Thanks to marked declines in the value of long-term incentive stock and option award packages, total direct compensation is down a whopping 21% (median) for the 30 top-paid CFOs, according to, and a median 3.1% for the full S&P 500 (as analyzed by Equilar). And that’s on top of the already-steep cuts to salaries and bonuses that CFOs endured the year before, when the financial crisis was in full swing.

Then again, CFO salaries and bonuses are up, some dramatically, over last year, making finance professionals the winners on that front compared with all other white-collar positions, according to data collected by the Association for Finance Professionals (AFP).

Adding to that good news, market rallies have sweetened the noncash components of those 2009 compensation packages since they were awarded. “While overall pay decreased for CFOs again last year, the data is somewhat misleading,” acknowledges Aaron Boyd, Equilar head of research. Equity and stock awards were valued lower “because they were granted at the bottom of the market in early 2009.” Now, many are in the money — for the time being, at least.

So is CFO pay up or down this year? The answer largely depends on the size of the company, the health of its stock — and, perhaps, who is asking the question.

To be sure, whatever good news there may be for CFO compensation is more than offset by continuing pressure. For our annual survey, CFO reached out to four data crunchers (Equilar,, the AFP, and the Financial Executives Research Foundation) for statistical assessments. While there are some differences in their methodologies, all agreed that CFOs are being asked to take less in compensation at a time when more is required of them — including, ironically, complying with a host of new pay-related rules, such as the expansion of proxy disclosures (which require an explanation of the risks that compensation practices across the organization may create) and new quantitative and educational tasks associated with the shareholder “say on pay” provisions contained in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (see “The Calm Before Reform“).

“CFOs need to ensure that the link between pay and performance is simply and clearly explained, so that shareholders don’t reach the wrong conclusions,” says Equilar’s Boyd. “Otherwise, there’s always the specter of increased scrutiny from the media, regulators, and investors.”

Waiting to Cash In

That said, it’s not as though finance chiefs will need to moonlight at the local convenience store. Equilar’s study of CFO compensation in the S&P 500 indicates a median total compensation of $2,675,529 for 2009 (down 3.1% from the median $2,760,008 in 2008). Base salaries were up 7.4%, to a median $549,170, and bonuses were up a healthy 20.9%, to $536,250, compared with 2008’s $443,413.

In dollar figures, the median option award fell from $655,788 in 2008 to $560,153 in 2009, a 14.6% drop, and stock grants fell from a median $724,499 to $635,830, a 12.2% drop. Those awards generally occurred in early 2009, however, and in the present — with the Dow up nearly 1,000 points year-over-year as of press time — they look more, well, rewarding. Both types of awards have benefited from the rebound, says Boyd, with stock awards up an average 40.1% over their grant-date value.

This promising payday remains somewhat theoretical, however, given that many awards can’t be exercised for several more years. But quantity may make up for any subsequent dips: with declining stock prices in 2008 and 2009 lowering the value of equity awards, Boyd notes, many companies granted more shares in an attempt to mitigate the difference. Assuming the economy doesn’t unravel again, today’s modest gains may yield a true bonanza down the road.

The trends are similar in the larger sample that analyzes using the Russell 3000 index. That analysis shows a 4.1% increase in CFO base salaries in 2009, from a median $313,098 in 2008 to $325,865. Bonuses were up 6.7% over the period to a median $63,990, likely because “very few were paid in the last year or two,” and because of more-conservative goal-setting around bonus targets, Nielsen says.

All told, the total cash compensation for those 3,000 CFOs increased 6.6%, to a median $497,813. But, again, when the equity and stock awards at their fair-value grant dates are applied to the numbers, CFO total direct compensation fell, by a comparatively small 0.5%, to a median $945,365.’s assessment of the 30 highest-paid CFOs shows these trends in the extreme. Their median total direct compensation decreased 21%, to $9,551,410 from the $12,127,923 median tabulated in 2008, even as median salaries increased by 21%, to $786,841. Those cash boosts came “most likely because salaries had been relatively flat in recent years and some CFOs may even have seen cuts,” Nielsen explains, but they “obviously were not sufficient to counterbalance losses in equity compensation values, year over year.”

Different Flavors, Same Trends

The same held true, for the most part, among CFOs working for midcap and small-cap companies — the S&P 400 and S&P 600, respectively. Equilar’s findings indicate that CFOs at small-cap companies saw their median total compensation decrease marginally (by 0.64%) to $840,903 from 2008 to 2009, while those at midcap companies experienced a larger decrease, of 2.7%, to $1,399,103.

In both cases, bonuses were larger while option and stock awards were the component of total compensation hit hardest. The value of the option and stock awards for small-cap CFOs fell 58% and 2%, respectively; and for midcap CFOs they dropped 31% and 1.7%, respectively. Overall, the awards are much higher in value today than at their time of granting.

The Financial Executives Research Foundation (FERF) took a careful look at the differences in pay between public companies and private companies. The average base salary for the 126 public-company finance chiefs tracked in its survey was $285,000, compared with $204,800 for the 390 private-company CFOs who responded. Both groups received average 2% increases in base salaries, a change from past years in which public-company CFOs got much larger boosts.

Still, public-company CFOs far outearn their private-company counterparts. When stock options, bonuses, and retirement benefits are added to base salaries, public-company CFOs earned an average $680,407 last year, well ahead of the total average compensation ($367,311) of private-company finance chiefs. Cheryl Graziano, FERF vice president for financial research and accounting policy, chalks up the disparity to the fact that fewer than half the private-company finance chiefs receive stock options. Among public companies, 88% received some type of stock-based long-term incentive award.

Some variation in CFO salaries also plays out across different geographies and industries, AFP data reveals. CFOs in the West took home the most, on average, with the typical salary coming in at $201,700, while those in the South earned a comparatively trifling $171,700. CFOs in the Northeast and Midwest chalked up salaries of $193,600 and $183,100, respectively. From an industry standpoint, salaries were highest in the energy/utility sector ($228,100, on average), followed by technology services ($204,800), business services ($182,800), general services ($196,700), retail/distribution/transportation ($191,100), manufacturing/construction ($177,900), and government/nonprofit ($156,900).

Add it all up and finance professionals enjoyed a median 2.5% salary increase in 2009, more than 13% higher than the national average for all white-collar positions. Whether that equates to a wallet that is half full or half empty is a question each finance professional will have to decide for him- or herself.

Russ Banham is a contributing editor of CFO.

The Biggest Paydays

So which finance executives made the most in 2009? According to’s analysis of the highest-paid CFOs (see the chart at the end of this article), the prize goes to Thomas E. Dooley of Viacom, whose total direct compensation for 2009 amounted to $27,026,420, up from $22,174,296 (which earned him the No. 5 spot) in 2008.

But everything is relative. Dooley’s take in 2009 is a pittance, for example, compared with last year’s No. 1, Randall T. Mays, president and CFO of CC Media Holdings; his total direct compensation in 2008 was a whopping $45.9 million. And yet “this year, Mays didn’t even make the list,” notes Deb Nielsen of “He had a massive amount of equity compensation in 2008, aided by a merger, but like many other CFOs, not nearly as much in 2009.”

Indeed, only half of the Top 10 CFOs were repeats from the previous year, a consequence of firms reining in their equity grants, says Nielsen. Notables (besides Mays) who are missing from the 2009 Top 10 list include CFO David Viniar of Goldman Sachs (no surprise there) and CFO and president Safra Catz at Oracle. (New CFO Jeff Epstein weighed in at No. 35.) The highest-paid CFOs in 2009 also include Patrick Pichette at Google ($24,686,743), Michael Angelakis at Comcast ($21,554,132), Matt Maddox at Wynn Resorts ($15,026,299), and Keith Sherin at GE ($13,955,956). — R.B.

Treasurer, Can You Spare a Dime?

In the Association for Finance Professionals’s (AFP) annual survey of compensation, something cropped up in 2009 that hadn’t occurred before: treasurers, controllers, and vice presidents of finance got bigger raises than their bosses.

CFOs received a median 1.8% increase in base salary (to $192,700) in 2009, whereas treasurers received a 3.3% base salary increase ($171,000). Controllers and vice presidents of finance also did better than their chiefs, with a median 2.6% increase in their salaries (to $119,100 and $167,900, respectively).

What’s behind the disproportionate salary hikes? Kevin Roth, AFP managing director of research, mulled the possibility that CFOs don’t want to lose their key support staff to the competition. But then, why wouldn’t CFOs’ salary increases keep pace with that of their more senior reports, when in fact they matched the levels of increase given to accounting clerks? Roth says the minor differences aren’t as important as the fact that all the salary increases were less than those for previous years. “Capital investments are lagging, and that goes for finance salaries, too,” he says.

But as well as treasurers made out, they didn’t enjoy the biggest salary increases last year. Who did? Internal auditors, up 4.3%, to $84,100. Talk about pay-for-performance. — R.B.

Compensation Survey, October 2010