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Chaebol owners slip through loopholes of pay disclosure rule

With the analysis of executive compensation in full swing, the highest-paid CEO in South Korea is a seasonal celebrity at best -- envied by peers, sometimes attacked by corporate gadflies.
  

For some owners of the nation's family-controlled conglomerates who don't want to attract attention to how much they earn, there's a way: Leave the board of directors.
  

In South Korea, companies are required to release the salary information of executives who earn more than 500 million won ($454,000) a year if they are members of the board of directors. The law took effect in November 2013 to enhance corporate transparency, in line with a global trend as most advanced economies require companies to make their executives' pay packages public.
  

Shin Jong-kyun, the chief of Samsung Electronics Co.'s mobile division, topped the list of professional CEOs with 14.57 billion won in salary and bonuses last year. It is 142.8 times more than the world's largest handset maker paid its salaried employees.
  

Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo was the highest-paid business group owner, receiving 21.57 billion won from three affiliates, including 10.8 billion won in severance pay from a steelmaker under the group's wing.
  

Although three of the nation's 10 highest-paid executives work for Samsung, the firm didn't release the wage information of its chairman, Lee Kun-hee, and vice president, Lee Jay-yong, his only son and heir apparent, in their annual financial report as they were not members of the board of directors.
  

Publicly available information shows that the two rank first and third on the nation's stock-rich list, with their combined stock assets worth $20.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.
  

Samsung, the nation's largest corporation in terms of assets, was among five of the top 10 firms that didn't reveal the compensation of their owners, who keep a tight grip on the conglomerates, locally called chaebol.
  

According to the Korea CXO Institute, 15.5 percent of 239 major business groups didn't disclose salary information of the owner family involved in management in their 2014 financial reports.
  

Since the law took effect, family members at 11 conglomerates have given up their board director memberships, the Seoul-based corporate tracker said.
  

"There will be more business group owners who try to get out of the disclosure list down the road," said Oh Il-sun, director of the Korea CXO Institute. "Chaebol owners will be more inclined to take a step back and have their children up front."
  

In the annual shareholders' meetings this year, several chiefs at local conglomerates, including Yong Poong Group and SKC, stepped down from their board of directors, without giving clear reasons.
  

The latest move was seen an apparent attempt to avoid tighter public scrutiny over the hefty compensation at companies that posted lackluster revenue last year as shareholders speak out against opaque decision-making processes at chaebol.
  

In the first pay disclosure season last year, Chey Tae-won of No. 3 SK Group came under harsh criticism after the chairman, who was behind bars on embezzlement charges, was revealed to have received 30 billion from four SK affiliates to become the highest-paid CEO of the year.
  

Bombarded with criticism over his role in earning the astronomical pay, the 55-year-old resigned most of his board posts and promised to donate all of his salary to charity. Still, he was able to keep his chairman posts at SK Innovation, the nation's biggest oil refiner, and chip giant SK hynix.
  

Hanwha Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn also gave up several board posts after coming under fire for becoming the third most-earning tycoon with 13.12 billion won from five affiliates in 2013. He was also serving a jail term for embezzlement at that time, though he was released in February 2014 after an appeals court suspended his sentence.
  

The handsome paychecks for Korean executives may seem enormous for ordinary employees, but market watchers say the pay level is not excessive when compared with their corporate counterparts overseas.
  

U.S. tech behemoth Apple said it paid CEO Tim Cook $9.2 million in salary and bonuses last year, but together with his shares of Apple stock that vested last year, his total compensation was estimated at more than $100 million. Apple shares had hit a record high in 2014 on the back of stellar iPhone sales.
  

Taking a look at the U.S. auto industry, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne received $72 million, and Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields took in $18.6 million in 2014, their corporate filings showed.
  

While some say CEOs who start a company or save a dying one deserve big rewards, just like sports stars and entertainment celebrities, critics say genuine corporate superstars are few in Korea Inc., where most chaebol firms hand over managerial posts to the royal family members.
  

The real issues, they say, are that the high pay of executives too often bears no relation to the performance of the companies they run and that the pay levels are set by board members hand-picked by the chief executives.
  

"As close aides of the owner family or those with special interests are appointed to the board of directors, they cannot put the brakes on executives' pay," said Oh Jung-keun, a researcher at the Korea Economic Research Institute. "They will have to set the executive pay level taking into consideration of their contribution and responsibility at the company."
  

According to Chaebul.com, which tracks the nation's conglomerates, 119 top executives received lump sum wages although their companies booked net losses last year.
  

Among them were Cho Hyun-ah, the former vice president at Korean Airlines Inc., who received 1.47 billion won in pay and severance allowances, although the nation's No. 1 carrier posted 205.5 billion won in net losses in 2014.
  

The daughter of Hanjin Group Chairman incurred public outrage after she ordered a flight taxiing at a New York airport to head back to the gate in December after a crew member served her macadamia nuts in a bag, not on a plate.
  

The so-called "nut rage" incident not only left her with a jail term for violating aviation regulations, but also damaged the full-air carrier's brand value, with market researcher Brandstock stating its ranking nosedived from sixth to 45th place after the incident.
  

Corporate watchers say the pay disclosure regulation needs to be revised to have chaebol owners and their families reveal their salaries if they exercise their managerial rights. Major American companies are required to disclose the pay of their top five earners whether they are registered or not.
  

"The Korean law needs to be revised to release the pay information of major shareholders and the owner family members regardless of their role on the board if they are involved in managerial decisions as executives," Korea CXO's Oh said. (Yonhap)

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