Analysis: Joys of home beat top-notch pay for Nordic executives

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Bloomberg

Christian Clausen, chief executive officer of Nordea Bank AB, poses for a photograph in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, April 12, 2012. Clausen talked about the outlook for European bank capital requirements and the European Central Bank's longer-term refinancing operations. Photographer: Casper Hedberg/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Christian Clausen

Niklas Pollard and Balazs Koranyi Stockholm and Oslo

EXECUTIVE excess need not be etched in stone. Just look at the Nordic region, where an egalitarian tradition and a high quality of life leave top managers content with lower pay cheques.

Although corporate pay scandals do occur and the gap between executive and average salaries has risen, company bosses in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway earn lower wages on average than in the US and elsewhere in Europe, data show.

Yet, there is little sign of Nordic executives and top talent searching for better pay abroad.

“There’s more to life than money,” oil services company Aker Solutions’ chief financial officer, Leif Borge, said. He made about $862 000 (R7.9 million) in 2011.

“I’m happy with my salary, it covers my needs. I have a cabin in the mountains and that is a quality of life I wouldn’t have in Houston.”

Total pay for top executives in Sweden and Denmark is about 75 percent of the European average, and lower in Norway and Finland, data from management consultancy Hay Group show, a gap compounded by some of the world’s highest taxes.

Moreover, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen often figure among the top 10 most expensive cities, although luxury homes there are cheaper than in London, Zurich or Geneva. Borge’s counterpart as chief financial officer of FMC Technologies, a US company, earns $2m a year, data show.

Nordic pay is further below that of big economies like Germany, Britain and Switzerland, which this month voted to impose strict controls on executive rewards.

The Swiss vote was part of a general attack on corporate largesse in Europe, where government austerity has fed a desire to limit Wall Street-style excess in corporate boardrooms.

A Novus poll of about 1 300 managers and executives in Sweden last year showed only 4 percent wanted to move abroad. In Denmark, only 2 percent of people between the ages of 25 to 49 with bachelors degrees emigrated last year, mostly for brief studies.

Novo Nordisk, the Danish insulin maker, sees no brain drain.

“We have a goal that we will not have a staff turnover of more than 5 percent among our best-performing employees and we are far below that,” human resources executive Lars Christian Lassen said.

Among those who venture abroad, the benefits of quality state-funded education, good public services and health care, and a comprehensive social safety net exert a strong homeward pull.

Anssi Rantanen, a student at Helsinki’s top-flight Hanken business school, is hoping to get his masters degree in London and work a few years abroad before going home. “Once you get used to the standard of living here, I find it hard to see myself working for the rest of my life in the US,” he said.

In the Better Life index of living standards calculated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Nordic nations clinch three of the top five spots.

“There is fantastic quality of living in the Nordic areas, there are many parameters stacking up to why you want to work, so we are very competitive,” Nordea Bank chief executive Christian Clausen said. It is the region’s biggest bank.

He received e1.9m (R22.4m) last year, making him one of the best paid people in the region.

That was still only a third of the pay of Brady Dougan, the chief executive of Credit Suisse, with a market capitalisation well below that of Nordea, and that only after Dougan took a more than 50 percent pay cut as the bank’s earnings and share price fell.

A long history of egalitarian Social Democratic rule have left a legacy. “If Dutchmen or a German calls, the first question I get is what is the salary?” Rikard Soderberg at headhunting firm Alumni said.

For Swedes, the discussion is different. “The person I talk to nearly always cringes in discomfort. You just don’t talk about salary in Sweden. It is taboo.” – Reuters


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