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How Much Is Fair : The Compensation Committee
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wise committee will reallocate the mix of current and deferred compensation if the deferred component threatens to approach levels experienced at the New York Stock Exchange
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It was May 2, 2001, a day etched in my memory if only because I met Dick Grasso, the head of the New York Stock Exchange He had not yet led the NYSE to recovery from the attacks of September 11, 2001 or fallen from grace for his compensation woes ABN AMRO had just bought the US domestic brokerage business of ING Barings As a Managing Director in the New York offices of ING, I too was sold and destined to become part of ABN AMRO To honor the closing of the transaction, the senior management of the new ABN AMRO was invited down to the New York Stock Exchange to ring the closing bell We were received at the NYSE boardroom, which is across the street from the Exchange It is a beautiful room with high ceilings, oversized windows, and wonderfully ostentatious furnishings that ooze history and power On cue, shortly before the close, a diminutive Dick Grasso walks in and addresses those present in what felt like a somewhat forced but effective speech extolling the virtues of the exchange and its superiority above other means of trading Before we all walked over to the exchange for the close, he handed each of us a heavy bronze medallion in an understated red presentation box The medallion, notable for its relief of a bull and bear locked in battle, had been struck with the company name and date to remember the day In a way, this personal memento reflected everything Dick Grasso represented It was classic marketing, nothing over the top, yet it required a well-oiled internal factory to churn out the gifts for every opening and closing of the exchange You appreciated the work and the thought that went into it I had often heard from the old guard how hard Grasso worked to make it to the top He started as a clerk in the listing department, earning $81 a week, and diligently studied its internal workings I can find no one who will argue that he knew the nuances of the exchange better than anyone Presentation seemed to be a weakness, but you could see he was passionate about the exchange, which made his somewhat stiff public-speaking style endearing Perhaps because of where he came from, he was able to speak to people, and they would understand, no matter how complicated the subject And he ran the exchange successfully Since taking over the exchange as chairman in 1995, Grasso saw the NYSE increase its share of the nation s stock trading from 70 percent to 90 percent taking business from the regional exchanges, and even the NASDAQ after the technology bubble burst This was in the face of increasing competition from the NASDAQ and electronic trading Over half of the companies trading on the NYSE were recruited while Grasso was chairman The man could sell and that was critically important to the exchange Every new listing brought in fees and more business
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for the specialists that made their living making the market Additionally, the value of a NYSE seat tripled during his tenure You cannot talk about Dick Grasso without also considering September 11, 2001 Who can forget the hard work that went into getting the exchange open after his assurance that the NYSE would reopen a week later, which it did He stood at the podium, surrounded by Governor Pataki, US Senator Schumer, SEC Commissioner Pitt, New York Mayor Guiliani, and others before the opening bell and, after a moment of silence, led the floor in singing God Bless America To the approval of many, he did not allow Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news network based in Qatar, access to the Exchange due to their perceived support of Al-Qaeda He had become an American icon So how could the hardworking boy in the listing department who rose to chairman end his career ignominiously Was it the result of absolute power corrupts absolutely There have been accusations that Grasso used his regulatory powers as a weapon and made enemies Some say he unfairly used his position to pressure specialists to maintain market share that drove his bonus Still more say that he had undue influence over his board of directors regarding nomination and compensation issues Whether any of these accusations are accurate, what is clear is the payout of $140 million in deferred compensation set off the firestorm, and the resulting public battle with New York s Attorney General sealed his fate In a letter to the chairman of the Human Resources and Compensation Committee, H Carl McCall, SEC Chairman William Donaldson called into question the distribution of nearly $140 million in deferred compensation to Mr Grasso In Mr Donaldson s words the approval of Mr Grasso s pay package raises serious questions regarding the effectiveness of the NYSE s current governance structure a Commissioner Donaldson knew what he was talking about Before Dick Grasso, he was chairman and CEO of the NYSE and deeply understood the role One defense put forward by the exchange was that Grasso s pay was similar to the CEOs of those companies he regulated An internal exchange report, however, determined that Mr Grasso was overpaid by as much as $156 million from 1995 to 2002 The report concludes that the benchmarks used (large financial institutions) was inappropriate, that Mr Grasso s own evaluation of the exchange s performance directly impacted his pay, and that his final compensation often exceeded even the inappropriate benchmarks by a wide marginb Few would doubt that the chairman of the exchange is entitled to a retirement plan, but the amount left most Americans shocked and dismayed How does a selfregulatory agency head make that kind of money It is one thing if a corporate chieftain reaps huge rewards because the stock markedly appreciates also enriching his stockholders, but the NYSE paid Grasso $12 million in cash in a year where the exchange made $28 million To receive such a large portion of earnings itself raises questions The chairman was also able to defer bonuses and receive a guaranteed 8 percent return Over time, his deferred compensation just exploded Perhaps Grasso knew that he had a time bomb on his hands, which is why he wanted to cash out prematurely According to an internal exchange report, the head
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