By Ross Kerber
BOSTON (Reuters) - For some executives, corporate perks are getting just a little less exciting.
A number of major U.S. companies are cutting back on glamorous luxuries like personal jet use, country-club memberships, and luxury rentals, recent corporate filings show. Often the shifts follow pressure from shareholders, who in recent years have criticized soaring executive pay and over-the-top perks.
But it doesn't mean that the "extras" package that comes with a C-suite job is in decline - in many cases the surging value of more mundane freebies like financial planning assistance or life insurance is more than making up the difference.
"Companies are really digging in on identifying what areas it makes sense to focus their benefits programs," said Robert Newbury, director at pay consulting firm Towers Watson. "You will see companies spend less on areas that raise red flags with investors."
Take for instance casino mogul Steve Wynn. He began paying out of his own pocket in November for his Las Vegas luxury villa after years during which his company Wynn Resorts Ltd took care of the bill - which was more than $450,000 a year.
"The new treatment of Mr. Wynn's villa is part of an overall change of executive compensation to ensure the company is aligned with best-in-market compensation practices," Wynn Resorts spokesman Michael Weaver said.
At the same time, Wynn - who in December was featured on a "Truly Outrageous CEO Perks" list produced by the financial news service 24/7 Wall St because of the villa freebie - saw a company contribution to his insurance and benefits nearly double to $33,293 in 2013 from $18,125 in 2012.
And he got "merchandise discounts" of $56,196, more than double the $23,057 he received in 2012. The filing did not give more details about what these discounts were for and Weaver declined to comment.
For AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson the value of his "other compensation" - costs outside of traditional areas like salaries, bonuses and equity awards - dropped 35 percent in 2013 to $522,203, according to its proxy filed last month. The drop was mainly because he now reimburses the company for personal use of AT&T aircraft, a spokesman said.
The policy is one of several that AT&T adopted to show "its commitment to paying for performance and aligning executive pay with stockholder interests," the company said in a filing reporting the change in March 2013.
The telecom giant has been slowly cracking down on perks in recent years - from 2011 onwards it stopped paying fees for executives' country club memberships.
A decline in flying costs could also be seen at Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg's cost for personal use of company aircraft was $650,164 last year, down almost half from $1.2 million in 2012. The aircraft were "chartered in connection with Mr. Zuckerberg's overall security program," Facebook said in a filing, which did not give a reason for the decline. The company declined to comment.
The changes are in line with broader trends in compensation, experts say.
Towers Watson, for example, found just 36 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs got company aircraft for personal use in 2012, down from 53 percent in 2007. However, the median value for the personal use of aircraft among those who had the perk was $125,473 in 2012, up from $92,596 in 2007 - likely due to factors like higher fuel prices.
"You would have to say this is one of the real successes of the critics of executive pay," said pay consultant Alan Johnson. "They opened the curtains and everyone said, 'Oh my God, why we paying for all this?'"
Banks in particular have backed away from perks that brought them heat from lawmakers and regulators as they got bailouts during the financial crisis. Morgan Stanley Inc paid $368,675 for then-CEO John Mack's personal use of company aircraft in 2008. But since then, Mack and his successor James Gorman paid out of their own pockets for such flights.
Another Morgan Stanley executive, wealth-management head Gregory Fleming, has received no perks since 2011, a recent filing shows. Fleming worked at Merrill Lynch until 2009, around the time then Merrill CEO John Thain was criticized for a lavish office renovation that included a $35,000 "commode on legs."
"Greg having lived through the John Thain era … I think that continues to be paramount in everybody's mind," said one bank executive close to Fleming.
Fleming declined to comment.
Still, cutting some of the flashier perks can be more symbolic than anything. Overall executive compensation continued to rise in 2013, though at a slower pace than in previous years, according to a review of early filings.
Wynn, for example, made $19.6 million in compensation in 2013, up from $17.7 million in 2012.
MUNDANE SPENDING UP
Indeed, about 60 percent of companies that have filed disclosures for 2013 actually raised "other compensation" spending, according to compensation data firm Equilar. The trend follows the pattern of past years and may reflect more spending on areas like security and financial planning.
Towers Watson's survey last year found the median value of financial and tax planning assistance for CEOs rose to $15,000 in 2012 from $11,180 in 2007, for instance.
And not everyone is booking less personal travel to their companies.
At Verizon Communications Inc CEO Lowell McAdam got a 46 percent boost in "other compensation" to $780,874 in 2013. Of that $120,304 was for personal use of company aircraft, up from $89,467 in 2012. Verizon declined to comment.
Nutrition and weight-loss company Herbalife also sharply boosted spending on personal jet use by its CEO Michael Johnson and his family. A company spokesman said the use of a private jet was for the family's personal security.
Johnson and Herbalife have been under a lot of pressure from hedge fund manager William Ackman, who has had a big short bet against the company's shares and has accused it publicly of running a pyramid scheme. Herbalife strenuously denies the charge.
Another perk is the chance to use a company's products.
General Electric Co described a program that provides its home appliances "upon request" to top executives and directors. Rival Whirlpool Corp's filing outlined a similar deal for its directors who aren't executives. "For evaluative purposes, Whirlpool permits non-employee directors to test Whirlpool products for home use," the company said in a filing.
Also, California chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices Inc listed as gifts to its top executives the costs of Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One game console systems - with $1,006 worth logged to CEO Rory Read.
Both systems use AMD components. Hundreds of other company employees also received game consoles "to acknowledge their contributions driving our strong financial performance," AMD spokesman Drew Prairie said via e-mail.
(Reporting by Ross Kerber; additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis, Peter Rudegeair, and Lauren LaCapra; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Martin Howell)