Last week, a storm arose over a leaked document that said General Motors was going to pay CEO Dan Akerson over $11 million for his services in 2012. GM quickly refuted the leak, saying Akerson had specifically asked that his compensation remain the same as it was in 2011: $9 million, including a $1.7 million salary, stock grants, stock options and certain expenses.
Akerson's actual take-home was about $11 million, but $2 million of that was gains from previously issued stock, so it really doesn't count.
Since GM executive compensation is still subject to government oversight because the Treasury has not yet been repaid the billions of dollars loaned in 2009, various members of Congress, including Darryl Issa (R-CA), wanted to know why Akerson was making $9 million.
On the other hand, GM has been very unhappy about the government's control, saying it makes the company uncompetitive in recruiting and retaining talent. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last September, Former GM CEO Ed Whitacre wrote "It's time for Treasury to step out of the way so that GM can fully focus on what it does best: designing, building and selling the world's best vehicles."
Earlier this year, GM petitioned the government to relinquish control; the government declined.
While the need to be competitive is a common refrain among American companies to justify high paydays for top executives, each company is different and deserves to be judged on its own.
Considering the number of top executives General Motors has churned through since its exit from bankruptcy, retention doesn't seem to be a big issue. In addition, attracting new people to replace ousted GM leaders doesn't seem to have been a problem, either.
As far as the impact on GM's ability to design, build and sell, there are some valid questions to be raised, especially abou the first item: design. GM laid off 25% of its U.S. R&D staff and engaged an outside firm to determine what other positions could be cut or consolidated, so there's no difficulty retaining employees in the lower echelons.
And what design is being affected? At the 2010 North American International Auto Show, Akerson announced that GM didn't have any new product to show due to a lack of funds. At the time Akerson made that statement, GM was sitting on over $7 billion in government loan money that was supposed to be used for this purpose, among others. Instead GM used that money to make a highly publicized "down payment" on its debt to the American taxpayers.
And GM really hasn't brought much in the way of brand-new product to market since Akerson's announcement in 2010.
When GM introduced the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra to the media, the spokesman said the company had invested more than a billion dollars in the development of the new trucks. After looking over the new trucks and an examination of the specs, many of the assembled writers were wondering where the money had gone. The Chevrolet Cruze, Sonic and Spark, as well as the new Buick Verano, are all products of GM's Korean subsidiary, the former Daewoo company.
The new Cadillac ATS is certainly one for which GM deserves credit and there are others but government oversight of GM executive pay doesn't seem to be having a negative impact on GM's ability to design new vehicles.
Build quality is a given: From what we've seen, GM's materials and assembly have improved.
Selling is the proof of the pudding and for that, some comparison is in order: Chrysler Group went through the same process as GM. It's no longer under government control as it repaid its loans, so it's free from government oversight.
Last year, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne received a compensation package worth $1.5 million. There was no salary paid; Marchionne has never received a salary from Chrysler. Marchionne's compensation included stock options, stock grants and expenses. (It should be noted that Marchionne's total 2012 compensation was much higher than Akerson's because he also received millions from Fiat Group and Fiat Industrial.)
Going back to 2005, the last year U.S. light vehicle sales were within spitting distance of 17 million, end-of-calendar-year sales were tracked for General Motors and Chrysler. The results are quite interesting.
From 2005 to the depths of 2009, a watershed year, Chrysler sales fell off a cliff, plunging 59.6%. GM's nadir came the same year as its sales were down 53.1% compared to the end of 2005. Total U.S. light vehicle sales fell 38.6% to their lowest point since 2005. In June 2009, Chrysler Group emerged from bankruptcy followed a month later by a shiny new GM.
From 2009 to 2012, General Motors sales grew 25.8%, exactly in step with the recovery of the total market. During the same period, Chrysler sales grew 77.3%. At the end of last year, Chrysler had recovered 71.7% of its 2005 sales volume while GM had regained 58.8%.
The difference is even more dramatic when examining market share during the same period. At the end of 2012, Chrysler's share had grown to 11.4%, a 27.5% improvement over the end of 2009 and 84.1% of its 2005 share. During the same period, GM's share fell 9.4% to 17.9% of the market, GM's lowest market share in at least 50 years.
While this might provide some ammunition for those pressing for the government's release of General Motors, it certainly adds some for those wondering why GM's leaders are being paid what they are getting now.
It's also a point of pride for the people of Chrysler Group and their fans and supporters.