Vacation rides in corporate jets, company cars with no strings attached on personal use, memberships at exclusive clubs paid for by shareholders - these are among the special conveniences and pleasures afforded top management.
Such privileges of rank have long been a part of what separates the chiefs from the indians in corporate life. They have also been carefully veiled in company accounts, lumped somewhere under general administrative expenses.
Now the veil is being lifted. Under pressure from the Securities and Exchange Commission, many publicly held companies this year are disclosing in proxy statements the bagfull of special benefits (known as "executive perquisites," or "perks" for short) awarded their top officers and directors.
A random sampling of several hundred of these reports reveals that perks have become standard operating procedure for most firms, from airlines to pet food companies. Whether easing daily hassles or just sweetening the pot a little, these add-ons take many forms.They also frequently can add thousands of dollars to a company's expense budget.
The disclosures underline one sure rule of business life; It's not always how much you make, but the form you make it in.
Eastern Air Lines spent $38,340 last year picking up the tab at private lunches and country clubs for 64 officers and directors.
Hartz Mountain Corp., the pet products company, provided cars for its 21 top officials at an estimated cost of $51,400.
Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. loaned $11,000 to a vice president, interest-free.
J.P. Stevens Inc. paid $21,500 for tax advice and consulation services given eight company officials.
L.S. Good & Co., a large department store chain, offered greater discounts for store-bought merchandise to executives than it did to employes.
fsFlorida Power & Light provided its executives with a more generous health and accident plan than the company's average worker received. The utility paid out about $500 in extra insurance per officer last year.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. gave its 40 top officers company made tires for their family cars. In three cases, it also let a few of them make personal use of hotel accommodations at company expense. Total cost of these and other incidentals: $35,000.
Forced suddenly to expose such plum benefits for executives, a number of companies have started to rethink the need for them.
"Companies are in a kind of holding pattern in perks," said Don Simpson, a partner in Hay Associates, a Philadelphia consulting firm that specializes in designing compensation plans for some of the nation's blue-chip corporations. "The SEC disclosure thing has caused everyone to stop and rethink. They're becoming a lot more cautious about this."
It isn't the cost that has some companies retreating from perks. It's the possible embarrassment in front of shareholders - and sometimes worse, in front of employes and labor unions.
"It's one thing for a worker to know the top guys are making more than he is," said Graef S. (Bud) Crystal, vice president of Towers, Parrin, Forster and Crosby, a major consulting firm. "He can live with that. But when he finds out his boss is getting better medical benefits, that's more emotional thing."
For the top brass who receive perks, money doesn't seem to be the issue either. For them, prestige and status apparently matter more than extra cash.
(According to a recent salary study of 400 large corporations conducted by Arthur Young & Co., chief executive officers of manufacturing companies earned an average base salary of $251,600 and an average bonus payment of $101,700 in 1977.)
Some privileges traditionally have come with rank: a private secretary, passage into the executive dining room, one's very own parking space. But today's list of executive goodies goes well beyond this traditional list in cost and comfort.
For instance, Computer Installations Corp. in Houston paid $600 last year to cover the airport tie-down costs of Harry E. Blair's privately owned plane. Blair is the company's president.
Are all these extras really necessary?
Company spokesmen say they are. They say that perks have become expected by top managers and are accepted today as part of the cost of attracting and keeping talented executives. Besides, they say, most of what is provided is done for legitimate business purposes, and whatever personal benefits result are purely incidental.
"I'm not going to say I took this job because the company promised me the car of my choice," said a senior executive in a major electronics firm who asked not to be named. "But I will say that when you get higher up in the bucks, that's when the little things start making a difference."
A number of companies have complained to the SEC about the difficulty of separating the business - although executives are required to report non-business perks as income on their tax returns - and personal uses of many company-provided perks. It is clear, however, that some companies have tried harder at making the distinction than others.
Amalgamated Auto in Harrisburg, though not quite sure how often its executives use company cars for personal reasons, estimated such use to be 15 percent of the time.
But many large corporations claimed they could not determine the extent of personal use of company perks - nor, they said, was it very important that they did. For instance, Ford Motor Co. explains in its proxy:
"The company does not have a reasonable basis for determining the cost or value of any personal benefit that may be involved, but believes they are neither excessive nor unusual."
Some companies have declined to detail their perks. The Washington Post Co., for example, in a footnote to a table showing the salaries and bonuses given senior officers, has this to say on the subject:
"During 1977, the company furnished various facilities, primarily for business use, to certain of its officers . . . The information in the table above does not include the value of such officers' personal use of such facilities, which the company estimates does not exceed $5,000 in the case of any individual officer or $15,000 in the case of all officers as a group."
Also, some executives have found ways of arranging a perk or two to look as if the purpose is strictly business.
Under current SEC guidelines, personal benefits need not be described. Their value can be included in the aggregate pay listings in proxy statements. Or, if too difficult to determine, their value can be omitted altogether, provided that doing so would not mislead shareholders.
But SEC attorneys, while generally pleased with corporate disclosures so far, are not satisfied.They are proposing that firms reveal even more about the special goods and services they shower on key officials. And they want the spotlight turned on executive further down the corporate ladder. (Currently, a company need report only on its directors and three highest-paid officers.)
Explained SEC staffer Steve Paggioli, 'The point is to set forth an accurate reflection of the total remuneration that's being paid to individuals, in order to help shareholders better assess the performance of management."