Business Update with Mark Lacter

Controversy at Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles

KPCC's business analyst Mark Lacter says there's drama in the boardroom at a big oil company in Los Angeles.

Steve Julian: Mark, what's going on?

Mark Lacter: This could be a pretty good reality show, Steve - lots of intrigue and lots of money.  It centers on the chief executive of L.A.-based Occidental Petroleum, a fellow named Steve Chazen, and the company's chairman, a fellow named Ray Irani.  We've spoken a lot about Irani because of all the money he's made - over a 10-year period when he was still CEO, Irani pulled in almost $900 million.  Well, a bunch of shareholder groups went after him, and finally - in 2010 - he agreed to take a substantial pay cut and step aside as chief executive, but stay on as chairman.  And in the beginning that seemed to be working out all right.  But then, the Occidental stock price began falling, and it just so happens that Irani owns more than eight million shares.

Julian: Energy company stocks aren't the steadiest you can buy...

Lacter: No, they often fluctuate because their profits are reliant on the price of oil and natural gas.  That's not necessarily the fault of the CEO, it's just a reflection of the market.  But nevermind that - Ray Irani, along with several board members, now want Mr. Chazen out as chief executive.  Except that Mr. Chazen has his own supporters on the board (all this reported over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal).  You should know this kind of boardroom drama is not exactly Oxy's thing (they're had only three CEOs in the last 55 years), and that makes this skirmish all the more intriguing.

Julian: And unusual, I take it…

Lacter: To some extent, yes – Irani has been running things for a long time, and he has a strong financial stake in how well the stock is doing.  But what this really shows is how insular so much of corporate America continues to be, despite the efforts at reform.  Millions of shareholders own stock (I'm not just talking about the big boys - I'm talking about people who own a mutual fund or have 401(k) plan) - and yet there's sometimes very little transparency and very little accountability.  It still comes down to a small bunch of people – mostly guys – who rule the roost.

Julian: How much money is Irani making?

Lacter: A lot.  He took in almost $46 million last year, which is actually a big pay cut from what he had been making as CEO.  But, that's still among the largest payouts for any U.S. executive - higher than what the chairman of Exxon Mobil makes, and that company is more than six times the size of Occidental.  It's also higher than the pay of Disney CEO Robert Iger, whose company's stock price rose 73 percent in 2012 while Occidental's fell 16 percent.

Julian: Is there a shareholders’ meeting any time soon?

Lacter: It's in May, and I bet shareholders will have something to say about all that.  The thing is, lots of CEOs are making big money, largely because of the Wall Street rally.  Their contracts typically provide incentive bonuses that are based on how well their stocks perform.  Also, many of them have been collecting stock options that are a lot more valuable now that the share prices are so much higher.  USA Today did an analysis that found median pay in 2012 to be almost $10 million - and at several locally-based companies, the numbers were often higher.  Iger made $37 million, for example, and Michael White - the CEO of DirectTV (based in El Segundo) - made  almost $18 million, which is a huge raise from 2011.

Julian: Perks as well?

Lacter: Yes, things like free use of the corporate jet and free accounting services, the sort of excess that rubbed investors the wrong way some years back when stocks were going way down.  But stocks are no longer going way down, so maybe they figure the coast is clear.  Of course, all this is happening at a time when 12 million or so Americans remain out of work.  So, there's still a real disconnect between what happens in Corporate America, and what happens in Main Street America.

Mark Lacter is a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and writes the business blog at LA Observed.com.


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