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Have plane, will travel

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The provisioning of a company-paid aircraft, car or home security system are not normally features of rank-and-file employee benefits. But for the CEOs of America’s largest corporations, among them the nation’s brand-name life insurers, these perquisites are par for the course.

See also: CEO compensation: The sky is the limit

That’s certainly the case for the CEOs of a peer group of life insurers — Ameriprise Financial, Hartford Financial, Lincoln National, Principal Financial and Prudential Financial — whose actual compensation and performance metrics are compared here. Among the various fringe benefits NU examined, use of a company vehicle, either for business or personal reasons, is the most common among the five.

A review of proxy analyses statements from Institutional Shareholder Services shows that Lincoln National CEO Dennis Glass received $51,320 for personal aircraft use. Prudential Financial CEO John Strangfeld enjoyed nearly half that amount ($24,320) for a company car, and a bit more for a personal home/security system ($26,371).

Ameriprise Financial CEO James Cracchiolo surpassed his colleagues in the transportation category: The insurer doled out $166,466 for his personal aircraft use. To boot, he received an additional $89,455 in perks (undisclosed), and an “allowance” of $35,000.

In total, the five CEOs enjoyed $413,656 in perquisites. The one outlier within the group is Hartford Financial CEO Liam McGee, who received no perks.

As large as these fringe benefits may seem to workers outside of America’s C-suites, consultants who advise companies on executive compensation says the trend in recent years has been to reduce executive perks. One reason: A growing number of boards and compensation committees are linking pay to company performance, a trend fueled in part by pressure from institutional investors and proxy advisory firms.

“The number, type and value of the perks have come down dramatically over time,” says Marc Baransky, managing director of Semler Brossy Consulting Group. “Large public firms want to manage pay in terms of components that are performance-based, are clearly disclosed and are consistent across companies.”

Sibson Consulting Senior Vice President Myrna Hellerman agrees, adding that perquisites can also focus unwanted media attention on their chiefs.

“The view of many boards now is, ‘We’re already paying the CEO a lot of money. Giving him an additional $20,000 as part of a multi-million compensation package is silly. If you’re a big publicly traded company, you don’t need the negative publicity.”

Among the first perks to be axed, say experts, were tax gross-ups: money to pay income tax on the perks. Indeed, not one of the CEOs in Prudential Financial’s peer group received this benefit.

Also destined for the chopping block were supplemental executive retirement plans. Typically designed as a defined benefit pension plan, often informally funded with life insurance, SERPs in many cases have been jettisoned in favor of alternative non-qualified deferred compensation plans: elective deferral arrangements that specify the amount of salary, bonus or other deferrals and the time and manner of payment. These plans also use life insurance to secure tax-favored treatment of monies paid to executives, generally at retirement.

Other once-coveted perks — free membership at a country club, season tickets to football games, concierge services and the like — have also been dropped from CEOs’ pay packages. Or, say observers, the benefits are being offered at levels that don’t require disclosure.

Previously, a company could provide up to $50,000 in executive perks without having to report the amount.  But in 2010, the IRS reduced the limit to $10,000, a change that initially resulted in a spike of reported perks. That led observers to believe, erroneously, that companies were actually boosting fringe benefits.

“Perks that previously didn’t appear in proxy statements because of the higher, pre-2010 disclosure requirement were suddenly showing up,” says Paul Dorf, a managing director of Compensation Resources. “Then companies clamped down on the perks, except in cases where they could show a definitive business purpose.”

The latter has provided boards with the needed cover to continue offering their chief execs a smaller menu of fringe benefits. Hence, “executive wellness programs” encompassing, for example, private medical clinics that offer premium care and free membership in a fitness club continue to appear up in proxy statements.

And, as noted earlier, availing the CEO of a small plane remains a common perk, particularly in cases where travel to particular designations would otherwise be logistically challenging using commercial aircraft used by the public. Dorf observes that if a company can justify providing a private jet on business grounds, then it can reduce its tax liability, offsetting the cost of the service.

“Whether you need an airplane or not has a lot to do with where you’re located,” says Dorf. “If you’re the head of Wal-Mart and are looking to expand your retail chain to far-away places, then you may find that having an airplane is very important.

If the CEO uses a plane for legitimate business purposes, then the service is entirely tax-deductible to the company,” he adds. “But if the craft is employed for private purposes, then the company can only deduct that portion of the cost not charged to the CEO, such as for aircraft maintenance, landing rights and personnel.”

See also:

CEO pay on the rise across industries

Washington’s overlords