Sunday, April 05, 2009

Full Disclosure: Kent's Life as a Suit

As I posted about executive compensation and "the suits", I grew uncomfortable.

I imagine it would be easy for most folks to read those posts as a diatribe against those rotten executives with their bloated salaries, dressed to assert their importance. I am sad to say that the worst parts of me were thinking exactly like that.

As always, the full picture is a lot more complicated.

Perched in the middle of this crowd of suits is me. I was attending several days of meetings in Japan. Several comrades and I were meeting with the American and Japanese management of a major supplier for the electronics company that employed us. (In the tradition of HAL in the movie "2001, A Space Odyssey", I have decided to refer to our employer as GO.) By major supplier I mean that they supplied GO with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of a single type of component. The color of my beard reveals that this photo was taken more than a decade ago.

GO has a particularly informal culture. Six figure execs wore jeans to work. Seven and even eight figure execs frequently wore slacks and a dress shirt with no tie. I was definitely a jeans guy. However, I did have some small understanding of other cultures. Wearing jeans to a meeting with Japanese business men would rival wearing a Speedo to church (which I have done, but that is a story for another time).

I was the senior representative for GO. GO is very large. So despite the fact that I was four or five levels above entry level, I was also six or seven levels below CEO.

In my own way, I was one of "the suits".

As I write this I am struggling mightily to forgo telling you what a lowly suit I was. Because although I was wearing a cheap sports coat and khakis, I was definitely a suit. In fact, in the photo below, I am seated as guest of honor, directly across from the head of the Japanese operations.

Yes, those Geisha are the real thing. As for the dinner, I hope I never find out how much it cost. I seem to recall eight or nine courses. The most memorable dish was the raw sea slug served in a little igloo of ice. No, I'm not kidding. See the next photo.

The seat next to the Geisha is empty because someone was sick and couldn't come. You can see the various dishes that had collected at his spot up to that point.

O.K. I was not a nine figure CEO, but I was a suit. And if we want to play the multiples game, it goes like this. My income was about 6 or 7 times that of one of GO's U.S. factory workers. It was also 300 to 500 times that of a Tanzanian worker.

It is only the hypocrite in me that thinks of the nine figure CEO as some sort of monster. He or she is just riding the wave like I was. I can't really blame the executives if the stockholders for a corporation allow the board to vote crazy high compensation. It really is a democracy. Board members are elected by shareholders. In America, a vast number of us are direct shareholders via our 401Ks, IRAs, and pension funds.

Of course, that leads to this question: "How can a democracy fail so miserably to prevent that kind of excess." I think I know, but I'll save the answer for another post.
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