The Orlando Sentinel published a story recently...
Many Americans barely shrug when they hear about CEOs pulling down tens of millions of dollars each year.
Seven-figure bonuses are the norm. Perks like corporate jets and country club dues are routine. Even in these post-recession days of double-digit unemployment and mass foreclosures, no one really expects that the view is any less rosy from the top floor executive suite.
That's why it's worth a closer look when the largest company in Florida, a $25.3 billion venture that ranks No. 102 on the latest Fortune 500 list, pays its chief executive officer a mere $994,005.
Publix Super Markets Inc. 's Ed Crenshaw has fended off discount king Wal-Mart and kept the family-controlled grocery chain growing and profitable.
Can he really be that bad at negotiating his own salary? After all, other CEOs at much smaller companies in Central Florida are making as much as nine times more than he does.
The answer has more to do with the corporate culture at Publix than Crenshaw's bargaining prowess.
Publix is owned by its employees, through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP, and so is not beholden to Wall Street investors. Instead, everybody from Crenshaw, whose grandfather opened the first Publix in Winter Haven during the Great Depression, down to the bag boys own shares of the company.
Instead of anonymous investors who are focused on stock price, Crenshaw answers to his employees, who care not only about the short-term value of the company, but what its long-term prospects will be like.
Publix wears its low pay packages like a badge of honor.
It noted in its most recent proxy that its executives are paid "significantly less" than the top bosses at other grocery chains. The board said it believes "compensation should be set at responsible levels for all employees … and be consistent with the company's constant focus on controlling costs in its low margin business."
Loren Rodgers, executive director of the National Center for Employee Ownership, said it's not unusual for ESOP companies to pay executives lower than their counterparts at publicly traded companies.
"There is a myth of the hero CEO that's taken over Wall Street," Rodgers said. "If I believe Executive X is going to increase the value of the shares and everybody believes it, it's almost like the sub-prime bubble, where it's the perception of value."
Publix is the largest employee-owned company in the nation with more than 140,000 employees. The founding family, including Crenshaw, controls a large portion of its shares.
A spokeswoman said Crenshaw, who took over the company in 2008, doesn't discuss his salary publicly. Perhaps as a show of defiance against the typical culture of perks on Wall Street, the company says it does not provide executives with country club memberships, the personal use of private airplanes or tax and financial planning services that are so common for high-level bosses.
To put Crenshaw's compensation in context, he ranked ninth in my annual list last week of local CEO pay packages ahead of only four CEO's whose companies are just a fraction of the size of Publix.
And on the New York Times' annual list last month, Crenshaw was, for all practical purposes, last among 200 CEOs. Only executives who take nominal paychecks like Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffet, who accepts $500,000 mostly in the form of payments for a home security system, or Apple's Steve Jobs, who accepts $1, ranked below him.
The highest on that list was Viacom's Philippe Dauman, who earned a package totaling $84.5 million. Also in the Top 10, Walt Disney's Bob Iger at $28 million.
Publix offers a refreshing take on executive compensation in a world where many executives are adding zeros to their paychecks the way Publix stocks its shelves — fast and abundant. It's too bad more companies don't follow its lead.