Such is the importance of being Buffett.
In his typical non-confrontational, Gandhi-like stance in the face off with Coke over the company’s mammoth executive compensation plan, Warren Buffett ultimately made his point.
According to the Wall Street Journal, quoting knowledgeable people, Coke is likely to revise its controversial executive compensation plan that drew the ire of the legendary investor and its largest shareholder.
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Buffett disapproved of Coke’s plan, which reportedly involves the issue of 340 million new shares and options over the next four years, and estimated to be worth nearly $ 13 billion, according to activist fund manager David Winters.
Buffett didn’t measure up to his own standards
At the shareholders’ meeting Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) abstained from voting its 9% holding, triggering a sharp response from many quarters that Buffett had squandered a valuable opportunity to veto over-generous executive compensation plans of which he himself had been a vocal opponent.
“Apparently, though, Buffett doesn’t believe in the adage that you should practice what you preach… Given a chance to embarrass some major big shots — namely his fellow board members at The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO), a company where he is the largest shareholder, and whose equity compensation plan he felt was unjustifiably rich — he chose instead to punt,” said a caustic op-ed by Joe Nocera in the NYT.
Buffett explained away the apparent contradiction by saying, in effect, that though he disapproved of the ‘excessive’ plan, he still loved the company and its management and so “didn’t want to express any disapproval.”
Coke pays heed
But in reality, Buffett’s abstention, as well as some dinner diplomacy with Coke CEO Muhtar Kent, did lead Coke to review that executive compensation plan. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company’s compensation committee may suggest changes in the plan to the full board before the year is out.
The changes could involve awarding fewer options per executive annually, or stipulate a longer vesting period, or thirdly, tweak the ratio (currently 60%: 40%) between stock options and performance units.
The importance (or not) of stock options
In his own succession plan for Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B), Buffett has decreed that his successor as CEO should be “the only one who would receive options because he would be the only one who is responsible for the overall success of the operation.”
Though he has in the past criticised stock options as “lottery tickets” given as inducements to corporate managers, Buffett has on other occasions emphasised the importance of lucrative compensation as a reward for successful executives. “If you run a multibillion-dollar company the difference between a 10 and an eight is huge in terms of value.”
“We shun ‘lottery ticket’ arrangements, such as options on Berkshire shares, whose greatest value — which could range from zero to huge — is totally out of the control of the person whose behaviour we would like to affect,” he said in a 1997 letter to shareholders.
In his own case, Buffett has drawn a mere $ 100,000 as salary for over 30 years at Berkshire Hathaway.
In 2011, Buffett’s opposition to fat executive pay that had little relevance to a company’s long-term performance drew the following comment from Frank Glassner, CEO of Veritas Executive Compensation Consultants in San Francisco:
“His own frustration with regard to executive pay practices is reflected in not only talking the talk, but he and his organization walk the walk. He in the past noted he considers himself the ‘Typhoid Mary’ of compensation committees, so he very clearly believes in his mantra, that total shareholder return must take place before the executives are paid.”
Given all this, should Buffett have lent his powerful support to activist Winters’ crusade?
Maybe his approach worked
Now that Coke may change the comp plan, Buffett has probably had the last word, without resorting to an anti-management vote that could have had unforeseen repercussions on the share price.
In that way he probably did well for Coke shareholders, as well as for Berkshire Hathaway.