Several years ago, top executives of a major Washington-based corporation were shocked when they studied how the reality of inflation had ravaged their projected retirement incomes -- as well as the value of benefits they were using to help lure new talent to the management ranks.

The company's goal had been to pay retired executives about 65 percent of their average annual salary while on the job. What they found was that 40 percent of final salary levels was about all the executives could expect.

And the local firm is not unique. Throughout the business world -- in law and accounting firms, industrial corporations, utilities, financial institutions, retailers, publishers, even small family-owned firms -- executives have discovered that the nest egg planned for retirement is little more than a shell.

Although it may be difficult to attract sympathy from stockholders and average income earners for the retirement plight facing $100,000-a-year executive vice presidents, the businesses are concerned primarily about being able to attract and retain talent if their economic incentives fall behind.

As a consequeence, the Washington firm (which cannot be identified by name) turned to a new breed of consultants who specialize in executive compensation. Specifically, they picked the team of Raymond Schoenke Jr. and Joel Koenig.

Schoenke, whose principal fame came over a decade with the Washington Redskins professional football team, started his own employe benefits business here in the early 1970s. Koenig has been in the business for 20 years, the last 15 in Washington. About a year ago, they merged their operations into Schoenke & Koenig, based in Bethesda.

"I saw that with inflation, taxes . . . the field of employe benefits would be growing," Schoenke said last week of his decision to launch a business career in 1970, six years before his retirement from the Redskins' offensive line, where he was a valuable swingman, playing every position.

Business has boomed for Schoenke & Koenig, which now has some 200 clients in the metropolitan Washington area. Moreover, the Washington businessmen have recently concluded an agreement to become the 13th partner in a nationwide executive compensation consulting corporation, Management Compensation Group Inc. of Los Angeles. Schoenke & Koenig will have a one-13th interest in the West Coast firm, whose broad-services and research capabilities now will be available to the local company.

For the company cited earlier, which has been a client of Schoenke & Koenig for about three years, the consultants completed a full analysis of the costs for current and other possible benefit programs. The company was shown how it could solve its problem. One plan was picked, and Schoenke & Koenig now are administering the new benefits plan selected, called SIP.

SIP stands for selective supplemental income, a plan that can be established in a variety of forms to extend benefits to a larger segment of a company's management team. Typical SIP benefits include supplemental income at retirement; post-retirement survivor benefits not available under group life insurance; nontaxable, single sum preretirement death benefits; and supplemental income to surviving spouse or other heirs at death prior to retirement or income to executives when disabled, supplementing group disability benefits.

According to Management Compensation Group, a recent survey showed that SIP plans rank third lowest in cost among 20 well-known compensation methods (such as group life, pension and profit-sharing plans, nonqualified options). SIPs eliminated "reverse discrimination" against senior management inherent in government-sponsored programs, such as Social Security, the Los Angeles firm concluded.

Peter Mullin of Century Financial Corp., the Management Compensation firm based in Los Angeles, noted last week that Social Security benefits are projected to be a relatively small part of retirement income for most executives. Thus, although Social Security benefit relatively less. Their main sources of retirement income are from pension or other plans, not indexed to inflation.

With an assumed inflation rate of only 6 percent a year (half the current level), a dollar of pension income will be worth just 42 cents in 15 years. But the same dollar of Social Security benefits will be worth $2.40, he pointed out. Exectuives relying on traditional benefit plans or incentives obviously are in for a shock, as Koenig pointed out last week.

An executive earning $50,000 a decade ago and now earning $75,000 has experienced an apparent 50 percent salary boost. That's not bad on the surface. But according to an assemssment that takes into account inflation and higher taxation levels, real income for this executive was down $4,000 or 8 percent, Koenig said.

Out of awareness of this situation, the Bethesda consulting firm has attracted a growing number of law and accounting firms, a substantial number of firms in research and technology that live off government contracts, and large corporations here, Schoenke added. "Economic conditions are excellent here; the business climate is very good," he said.

He also said the principal concerns of area firms are the impact of inflation on retirement benefits and short-term to medium-term incentive plans, designed to keep talent on board.

Until recently, corporations have relied on stock options (typically to be exercised after five years) to keep executives productive. But the disastrous performance of stock prices on Wall Street in the 1970s has put many option plans "under water." Today, companies often need performance-related benefits with payoffs in three to five years just to attract competent executives in the first place.

Schoenke forecast that more large businesses will relocate to Washington, but he noted that high living costs here often are cited by potential executives for area firms as a deterrent to their relocation. Housing costs are mentioned most often, a situation Mullin noted was also a problem in California.

To deal with such relocation considerations, "There is no substitute for making it economically attractive to move, although the primary reason for moving must be the job," Mullin added. Many companies are making cash bonuses ranging upwards of $500,000 and more in advance of any work part of a relocation incentive. "It's a major wealth building step," he said.

Moreover, Koenig added, executives can be shown that Washington area real estate values have continued to advance and that costs aren't substantially more. The "cultural explosion" here also works in favor of executives' relocation decisions, he stated.

Schoenke, who will be 38 years old on Monday, discounted any real attraction of companies to his firm because of his National Football League career. A history major when he attented Southern Methodist University, Schoenke was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1963 college draft, signed by Green Bay as a free agent in 1966, traded to Cleveland the same year and then signed by the Redskins.

He was among the team's most valuable players because of his versatility. He has been active also in the Special Olympics program for retarded children.

Being a former Redskin has "no negative impact," Schoenke said, but "little bearing" on the business. But Schoenke, who handles the company's management in a division of responsibilities with partner Koenig, did note that "some people thought I was not a serious businessman; that had to be overcome."

Koenig, 42, met Schoenke at a seminar on employe benefits conducted about a decade ago. Koenig, who handles the technical side of the business, said some potential clients actually have been "a little disappointed because Ray does not meet the stereotype of an NFL player. Some people are not prepared for a very serious person, and they soon stop seeing him as an ex-player."

Both men said they can do all of the jobs but that their division represents a natural sharing. "We're both different; it's a blending of talents," Koenig stated. And Schoenke added that, although a partnership is "not all roses," an industrial psychologist had been employed when the merger of the two individuals' firms first was contemplated to help them make it work.

Nationwide, the Management Compensation Group that Schoenke and Koenig have joined confronts executive compensation issues for some 3,000 clients, 250 of them large public corporations and 50 listed among Fortune magazine's top 500 industrial firms.

Clients are charged in two ways -- consulting fees to review and design compensation packages and commissions for funding vehicles such as insurance plans. Overall business volume is up 220 percent since the 12 regional companies formed the national firm in 1976.

In addition to the new Washington area affiliate, Management Compensation Group may expand to a couple of other large regions in the next two years, Mullin said.

The cost of such services could range up to $2,000 for a specific consulting contract to $20,000 for a broad analysis, recommendation package and implementation of new benefit programs over a full year. Most offices are small; Schoenke & Koenig has a staff of 6 and probably will now grow to more than 15 or 20 persons, Schoenke said. "It's a very specialized type of business," he added.

What makes Management Compensation Group work differently than competitors is attention to the company executives involved, according to Mullin. "Historically, no one asked an executive what was wanted. Consultants would make recommendations, the management would decide and an announcement would be made," he stated.

Firms such as Schoenke & Koenig "spend a lot of time" on attitude surveys at the executive level. If an executive doesn't think a benefit package is good, it isn't, Mullin declared. Indeed, advertisements by the company ask what benefit there is in a program that may cost a firm $2.91 for $1.00 in actual benefits to an executive who perceives the real amount as only 30 cents.