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What CEOs Really Get Paid In America Now 

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Our annual survey of C-suite compensation offers an inside look at how much the nation’s business leaders—all of them, not just at huge public companies—are actually bringing home, and where it’s headed. And no, it isn’t tens of millions.

As inflation soared across industries and around the world, everyone from middle management to front line and back-office employees saw unprecedented wage increases in 2022. The leader of the C-Suite? On average, not so much. 

Data from Chief Executive’s annual research on the compensation plans of over 1,800 U.S. private companiesthe largest such survey of its kind the nation—shows that the median base salary change for private company CEOs consistently lands at 0 percent, and their 2022 bonuses aren’t expected to climb at the same rate they have in the past. The median CEO earned a total cash compensation of $400,000 in 2022, up 3.6 percent from 2021—a far cry from the 17.1 percent raise reported in similar studies of the nation’s executives.  

Even for CEOs within the 75th percentile of pay, the numbers don’t come anywhere near the massive compensation plans of the top-paid CEOs. Actual total cash comp for those in the top-quartile of CEOs was $650,000 in 2022—a 1.5 percent increase from 2021. For those keeping score, that’s less than 12 times the median annual earnings of workers in the U.S.—unchanged from last year and inconsistent from the 339-times figure (based on the largest public companies) that made ripples after it was reported in The New York Times. 

Preliminary data for 2023 doesn’t show much will be changing either: The majority of companies are reporting minimal (<5 percent) change to the median CEO compensation this year, vs. prior year. This comes as no surprise for anyone familiar with senior executive compensation at private U.S. companies. The median YoY change in cash compensation is historically flat—while the top quartile changes in base salaries and bonuses are an average of 3.43 and 6.50 percent per year, respectively, when looking back at the past five years.  

None of which is likely a surprise for readers of Chief Executive. As we’ve pointed out many times before, there is an abundance of anti-business spin surrounding chief executive pay, usually targeting the leaders of the largest 500 companies in the country. But, as you all know, most CEOs in America run private companies, and almost none of them are paid like their public company counterparts, whose pay garners consistent headlines for jaw-dropping salaries and double digit raises.  

The Equity Stake 

Much of the data reported about large public company CEOs emphasizes the equity portion of their comp plan. Our data shows unlike their public company counterparts, the median private company CEO does not typically receive new equity grants each year.   

Nevertheless, Chief Executive’s 2022-23 report shows that the median CEO does own approximately 10 percent of their company’s equity, for a value of $1.75 million. While that’s a sizable interest, the challenge for private companies is determining the appreciation of this equity stake. Unlike public companies, most private companies do not value themselves annually.  

However, in 2021, the median CEO overall reported equity gains of $30,000—a figure that has previously remained $0. One reason why this figure increased is that 2021 was a strong year for the stock market and for private businesses. Another reason is that as public companies continue to offer equity incentives to top executives, more and more private companies are estimating their enterprise value increases—and communicating that to their CEO. This may point to a change in best practice where privately held companies have begun to value themselves more often. 

And even when the data is available, it is highly correlated to various factors, particularly company size. For instance, the median increase in equity value in 2021 for CEOs of companies with $5 to $9.9 million was $27,800. At the other end of the scale, the median CEO at companies with $1 billion + in revenues reported a $682,000 increase in their equity value in 2021.  

There are many other variables that influence CEO compensation, and equity specifically. Ownership type and sector, among others, play significant roles. In 2021, for instance, we observed large equity appreciations in sectors like technology and wholesale/distribution, whereas most other industries saw appreciations under $100,000. Only three industries reported no equity gains in 2021—a striking difference from 2020 and most likely a result of PPP loans being forgiven in 2021 and being recorded as equity.   

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