Graef “Bud” Crystal, who became the foremost critic of excessive compensation after a career advising board directors on how to justify paying their chief executive officers top dollar, has died. He was 82.
He died April 18 at his home in Las Vegas, according to an email from his wife, Sue. The cause was heart disease.
“My switch from henchman to gadfly incensed many CEOs, some of whom called me a Judas and asked where they should deliver the 30 pieces of silver,” Crystal wrote in a 1996 article for Slate.com. “In a sense, though, those CEOs and I were operating on the same wavelength. They were quoting from the Bible, while I was beginning to think seriously about the need to save my immortal soul.”
For more than four decades, Crystal made a good but quiet living advising clients such as American Express Co. and General Electric Co. But once a critic, he found himself in the middle of controversies such as the alleged excesses of the employment contract that he helped Walt Disney Co. negotiate with Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz.
Ovitz was hired to be the No. 2 to Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Crystal had switched from consultant to critic in 1989, but he agreed in 1995 as a personal favor to Eisner to help the Disney board draft Ovitz’s employment contract.
In the Slate article, titled “Michael Ovitz Got Away with Murder — And I Helped Him,” Crystal explained he had warned Eisner he would put his critic hat back on if the contract became an issue — which its $140 million severance provision did in news stories and shareholder litigation that upheld it.
Crystal’s wife found it “incomprehensible” that the Disney board had agreed to pay Ovitz that kind of money for failing as the company’s president.
“I couldn’t have put it better,” Crystal wrote.
Crystal, who was a Bloomberg News columnist on executive-pay for eight years starting in 2000, prepared yearly reports identifying the most overpaid top executives, based on models he developed that compared compensation with a company’s size and performance.
“Bud Crystal was relentless confronting the opacity of executive compensation and he benefited all investors, especially Bloomberg users, by setting the standard for bringing transparency to publicly-traded companies,” said Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg News editor-in-chief emeritus.
Over the decades, he had some favorite targets, such as Stephen Wolf, ex-CEO of United Airlines Inc., whose 1990 pay was more than $18 million while the company’s profit fell 70 percent. Wolf made 1,200 times what a starting United flight attendant did, “60 Minutes” reported in an 1991 interview with Crystal.
Other targets included Steven Ross of Time Warner Inc. and Lee Iacocca of Chrysler Corp., whose employers paid them enormous sums while their companies were performing poorly, Crystal said.