U.S. CEOs Should Take their Cues from Asian Counterparts

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Judging from recent reports that JP Morgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) Chief Executive Jamie Dimon and Citigroup Inc. (NYSE:C) board member Robert W. Rubin will forgo bonuses this year, it appears that at least some U.S. executives are starting to change their habits, as we’ve long suggested they should.

Just Monday, in fact, U.S. heavy-equipment giant Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT) announced it was cutting executive compensation by as much as 50%, because of weakening global demand.

But let’s be very clear: U.S. corporate leaders still have a long way to go, and many lessons to learn. In fact, American executives could learn a thing or two from some of their counterparts abroad. Just look at Haruka Nishimatsu, CEO of Japan Airlines Corp for example (OTC:JALSY).

Each morning, Nishimatsu gets down to business immediately after his morning commute to the office – on a city bus.

His desk – like those of all the other Japan Airlines employees – sits in the middle of an “open office.” I know this from personal experience, having sat at a desk just like that when I’ve worked in Japan over the years. He eats lunch in the company cafeteria and hopes – like all Japanese employees – that he’ll have time to eat his meal before it gets cold as he stands in line waiting to pay, says CNN’s Kyung Lah.

This hardly sounds like the life of a corporate CEO, especially when you consider that JAL is one of the world’s top airlines. Nor does the fact that when JAL cut back and asked many of its employees to take early retirement, Nishimatsu first eliminated every one of his own corporate perks, including his own pay – which, at a mere $90,000 (U.S.), is below what JAL’s pilots get paid.

Nishimatsu noted in the CNN interview that many of the affected employees were about his age, 60, so he “thought he should share the pain with them.”

Obviously, that’s very different than in the United States, where top executives regularly make tens of millions of dollars a year, and where some compensation packages actually eclipse the hundred-million-dollar threshold. And some of the top earners are the very same executives who “managed” their companies into financial oblivion – and who took their trusting shareholders along for the ride.

If you want to see the latest example, just watch the parade of corporate-jet-riding, custom-suit-wearing corporate “beggars” that have been appearing (hat in hand) before the House Financial Services committee lately and you’ll see what I mean.

The pay gap between the boardroom and the factory floor – already a longtime topic of controversy here in the United States – has widened to the point that it’s become absolutely staggering. According to a survey conducted by the non-profit group, United for a Fair Economy, CEOs of large corporations made an average of $10.5 million in 2007, which is 344 times the wages of the average U.S. worker. The Economic Policy Institute puts it at only 275 times higher, which is still outrageous when you consider that the average working stiff won’t see in his lifetime what these guys have made in a year lately [to see how that disparity has grown over the past four decades, look at the accompanying chart, “Leaders vs. Workers”].

Capital One Financial Corp. (NYSE:COF) CEO Richard D. Fairbank took home a cool $73.1 million last year, which is 1,456 times the median household income of $50,233 for taxpayers footing Capital One’s $3.55 billion bailout, according to The Corporate Library.

In Japan – and throughout much of Asia, for that matter – there’s a much more balanced approach, with CEOs more commonly making only 10 times to 15 times more than their base level employees.

“Businesses that pursue money first fail,” Yoshichika Terasawa, a Singapore-based managing director for the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) told me when we spoke at his home in that Southeast Asia city-state earlier this year. “Companies that have their employees in mind tend to do better longer and recover faster. We learned that in Japan during our own bubble economy.”

The numbers seem to bear out Terasawa’s assertion. According to a USA Today study, the 10 best-paid CEOs made more than half a billion dollars collectively. Yet, half the members of this stratospheric club were actually heading companies whose profits shrank dramatically.

The poster boy for this club could well be General Motors Corp. (NYSE:GM) CEO G. Richard “Rick” Wagoner Jr., who closed four plants and posted a $39 billion loss in 2007, a period in which his company’s stock cratered 19%. But in the face of this financial mess, Wagoner’s compensation jumped 64% to reach $15.7 million. And GM apparently had a little something set aside; after all, Wagoner was able to take a corporate jet to Washington to plead for a taxpayer-funded bailout [For a breakdown on the top-earning CEOs of 2007, take a look at the accompanying graphic, “Top of the Charts.”].

The numbers, when they’re in for 2008, will probably be more egregious. JAL’s Nishimatsu clearly understands what his U.S. corporate brethren do not. As the global economy has worsened in recent months, the Japanese executive recounted how he’s dug into his savings like the rest of us have had to, in order to deal with life’s challenges.

“The air conditioner broke, the water heater … and my car,” Nishimatsu said. “My wife is still telling me this is all your fault.” We can certainly sympathize with him. But clearly, he can sympathize with us. Making the effort to relate to what employees and customers are feeling during such a difficult stretch is very important: It fosters pride in the work force, loyalty from customers and in the long run, will also win over investors. My guess is that we’ll all be the most sympathetic and supportive of companies led by CEOs like Nishimatsu.

And that might be just what’s needed to get out of this mess. [For additional coverage of the executive compensation controversy, check out this related story that details how the 116 banks that are receiving billions in taxpayer-provided bailout money this year actually paid out $1.6 billion in compensation and benefits to their top executives last year].

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