While Merrill Lynch's John Thain was splurging on a $1.2 million office makeover and Lehman Bros.' Richard Fuld was drawing a $22 million bonus, the president of Japan Airlines was riding the bus to work, eating in the company cafeteria and cutting his salary to $98,000.
"I wanted to share the pain with my colleagues," JAL President Haruka Nishimatsu, 61, says by e-mail. Nishimatsu had just imposed an early-retirement program that ended the careers of "many staff of my generation."
Japanese-style executive modesty is looking good again for the first time in two decades, thanks to the avaricious antics of American CEOs who lived large as their firms hurtled toward oblivion.
Outraged that American International Group executives were getting $165 million in bonuses as taxpayers bailed their company out, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, last month suggested that the insurer's managers "follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, 'I'm sorry,' and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide."
Grassley's comments, which he later retracted, rankled some executives at U.S. companies. George Buckley, the British CEO of St. Paul-based 3M, says it's easy for Washington insiders to point fingers. But if they had to kill themselves when they erred, "We'd probably have half the senators and congressmen missing from this nation immediately."
Truth is, Japanese executives aren't committing ritual suicide — or seppuku— in the face of economic troubles. But many are sharing the pain with the rank and file: Japan's Nikkei business newspaper says more than 150 Japanese firms have cut executive pay this year.
Japanese CEO pay never reached stratospheric heights. According to the consultancy Towers Perrin, CEOs of big Japanese companies earned an average $809,000 in 2003 — chump change compared with the $11.4 million raked in by their average U.S. counterpart. The figures, the latest comparison available for U.S. and Japanese executives, include base salary, annual bonuses and long-term incentive packages.
Moreover, argues management professor Gangaram Singh of San Diego State University, U.S. compensation packages, heavily weighted toward stock options, encouraged CEOs to focus on short-term gains in earnings and stock prices, rather than on the long-term health of their firms. "Greed and short-term orientation have gotten us into this situation," he says. "Short-term goals can bring all types of deviant behavior."
But other experts say there's a reason the Japanese management model fell from favor after Japan entered a long economic slump at the beginning of the 1990s: Japanese compensation packages don't give CEOs much incentive to look out for shareholders — the people who own the firm. No wonder Japanese firms are typically about half as profitable as U.S. firms, according to the Japanese government.
"I emphatically don't think U.S. firms should adopt Japanese-style compensation plans," says Brian Heywood, whose firm invests in Japanese companies. "In general, I do not believe that the current Japanese compensation system aligns management with shareholders effectively."