Are Perks Draining Your Profits?

Most of us are quite used to paying our own way for certain expenses. If we're taking a trip with our families, we plan, scrimp, and save to do so. If we feel insecure enough (or wealthy or important enough) to require security details, we most likely wouldn't ask somebody else to foot the bill for that, either.

These are personal expenses, and most of us take personal responsibility for such wants and needs. However, many CEOs are enjoying what most of us would consider normal life expenses on shareholders' money.

Shareholders run over on the runway
The corporate jet perk is one of the most well known and arguably most abused perquisites in existence. It's one thing when a corporate jet caters to executives who are traveling for business purposes. However, when executives are allowed to use the corporate jet for free and for personal purposes (including flying their families around on personal matters), that's when it gets abusive.

The folks at Footnoted.com recently revealed a few interesting cases in this particular type of flight from shareholder value.

Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD  ) isn't exactly an investor's dream these days, given its copious competitive problems, but CEO Louis D'Ambrosio enjoyed about $793,000 in personal flights on company money to commute from his Philadelphia home to Sears' Chicago offices. Footnoted analyst Sonya Hubbard also noted that these are considered "personal" transportation expenses under IRS guidelines.

You'd think running a company would be good enough reason to simply relocate and save shareholder money, but apparently that personal sacrifice doesn't seem worth it to D'Ambrosio. And can you imagine this guy's carbon footprint?

Last year, American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP  ) chairman and former CEO Michael G. Morris racked up nearly $490,000 in personal flights of fancy. Don't worry, the company's aware of the negative public perception of personal travel paid on shareholder money; it's banned such travel for everyone in the company but Morris, who had finagled such use of the company plane as part of his employment agreement.

In a nice aside, Hubbard pointed out something in Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-B  ) proxy statement. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger "do not use Company cars or belong to clubs which the company pays dues. It should also be noted that neither Mr. Buffett nor Mr. Munger utilizes corporate-owned aircraft for personal use. Each of them is personally a fractional NetJets owner, paying standard rates, and they use Berkshire-owned aircraft for business purposes only."

That's not just classy. It's common sense.

Putting an expensive fence around FarmVille
America's CEOs receive all kinds of outrageous perks. Even younger-generation chief executives from less established companies are apparently receiving some pretty sweet deals.

Zynga's (Nasdaq: ZNGA  ) relatively new on the scene (and has a pretty darn new IPO to boot), but the $1.37 million it's shelled out to protect CEO Mark Pincus and his family puts it at the top of the list of what massive, major companies spend on CEO security. The Wall Street Journal reported that this expense has ranked Zynga up there with giant corporations Lockheed Martin and Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) .

According to Hay Group data, most companies spend less than $250,000 on this CEO compensation-related line item.

I guess it could be kind of scary to be a well-known, wealthy chief executive who draws a lot of attention. Granted, Zynga's Pincus has also had to pursue legal action against a woman who he claims has violated a restraining order.

If rumors are true that the alleged stalker has been threatening Pincus and claiming that FarmVille was her Russian family's creation and even reporting to police that Google was sending messages to her brain in 2010, well, that doesn't sound like a particularly secure or stable situation. I can sympathize, but unfortunately, anyone can fall victim to such unpleasant incidents. Most of us unwashed masses have to rely on 911, more effective anti-stalking laws, and better help and constraints for people with a history of such behavior.

Furthermore, Pincus' net worth put him in the billionaire club right after the Zynga IPO, and he made about $109 million when he sold 7.8 million shares back to the company last year. It's hard to see how the company paying for this personal problem is well justified, especially for an extremely successful denizen of Silicon Valley.

Overall, along those whole "well-known, wealthy" lines, most of these folks are very well paid for their troubles as chief executives in the first place. Factoring in additional compensation for security certainly helps explain how CEO pay in general gets excessive.

Bottom-line danger
As proxy statements continue to stuff mailboxes and hit the SEC.gov database, it's pretty certain more excessive and even ridiculous perks for companies' highest-paid employees will continue to see the light of day. As shareholders, we must keep a sharp eye on these expenses.

Even beyond the bottom-line, profit-draining aspect, there's the psychological element: Are these managers mostly out for themselves? If that's the case, we can consider voting against their compensation plans or the directors who make up their compensation committees, or we can ditch these stocks altogether.

When corporate managers care more about their own bank accounts than shareholder value and respect, then the bottom line isn't just in danger. The bottom line for shareholders is danger. Somebody forgot who's working for whom.

Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Oracle, Google, and Berkshire Hathaway. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google and Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2012, at 10:09 PM, JimmyZangwow wrote:

    Ms. Lomax,

    Anyone who knows that it is "perqs" and not "perks" is A-OK by me. Thanks for the due diligence.

    Jimbo

  • Report this Comment On April 18, 2012, at 3:53 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    Perqs looks really, really weird. ;)

    Alyce

  • Report this Comment On April 18, 2012, at 4:31 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    That Zynga security detail number was an eye-popper. I'm not all that keen on Zynga to begin with, but that really clinches it for me as a stock to avoid.

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