One of New Zealand’s tall poppy tendencies is to grumble about the size of executive salaries whenever these are brought to our attention. The disparity between the highest-paid chief executive, on currently a touch over $4 million, and the minimum wage earner on less than $30,000 (excluding overtime or penal rates) is indeed vast. But that doesn’t mean it is unjustifiable.
According to a recent survey, the top five best paid CEOs in New Zealand are David Hisco of ANZ New Zealand ($4.1m), Theo Spierings of Fonterra ($3.5m), Mark Admanson of Fletcher Building ($3.3m), Peter Clare of Westpac New Zealand ($3.1m) and Nigel Morrison of Sky City (just under $3m).
While naysayers will often describe these amounts in a range of adjectives from excessive to extreme to obscene, the figures are not unduly high. They are below the amounts paid in years past, and compare unfavourably to the salaries being paid for top jobs across the Tasman and elsewhere.
Also, while people sometimes balk at the top salaries paid to business people, little noise is heard about the riches to be gained in other areas of endeavour – an All Black captain can earn $800,000 to $1m in a year, a teenage golfer $1.3m so far, and our most famous film-maker has accumulated wealth said to be in the region of $600m. Even the Prime Minister, whose parliamentary pay is a relatively paltry $428,000 a year, wins general approval as a self-made man with a fortune of around $50m, earned as an international currency trader.
The difference, perhaps, is that it is easy to visualise the commitment and drive and sheer guts that goes into becoming an international rugby star, a professional golfer, a film director or a top money-market player. It is less easy to imagine the working life of a chief executive, other than a daily round of suit-wearing, desk-jockeying and general hob-nobbing.
In fact, these people are being paid to take responsibility – often for multi-billion-dollar enterprises involving the investments and livelihoods of thousands – and to keep those businesses running successfully. They have reached their exalted positions often not through a life of privilege, but through hard work. Hisco, the bank boss, is said to have started his career with ANZ by sweeping the car park at a local branch in his hometown, Adelaide.
We should celebrate his success, not condemn it.
The truth is that to survive in and compete on global markets, New Zealand’s top enterprises must position themselves as international companies. To attract the talent required, that means paying the sort of money that might seem high here, but is nothing special in the wider world. As one of the most deregulated and open economies in the world, it is unreasonable to think that remuneration can be capped at some sort of imagined and arbitrary benchmark.