Like their counterparts in the rest of the country, general counsel in the South saw a slight drop in compensation in 2015, according to the 2016 General Counsel Compensation Survey, conducted by Daily Report affiliate ALM Legal Intelligence. But experts on executive compensation say Southern GCs have reason for optimism about their pay in years to come.
A quick word on methodology: Public companies in the United States are required to reveal the compensation of their five most highly paid executives. Despite being well-paid, some prominent GCs like Atlanta-based Home Depot’s Teresa Wynn Roseborough and Miami-based World Fuel Services’ R. Alexander Lake do not appear in the 2016 General Counsel Compensation Survey because they are not among the five most highly paid executives at their companies. But the survey, by looking at how much GCs made in 2015 compared with 2014, nonetheless offers insight into the big-picture trends in GC compensation.
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The trend in 2015 wasn’t one GCs will be happy about. The survey found a 2 percent decrease in compensation for GCs in the South in 2015. That slight drop is right on par with the national average. (The percentage decrease is more significant, at five points, when five outliers—companies that paid their GCs 50 percent more or less in 2015 than in 2014—are excluded: Charlotte, North Carolina-based The Curtiss-Wright Corp.; Jacksonville, Florida-based Landstar System Inc.; Charlotte-based SPX Corp., Columbus, Georgia-based Total System Services Inc., and Tampa, Florida-based WellCare Health Plans Inc.)
If there is a silver lining for GCs in the South it’s that base salaries, one component of this typical cash compensation package, increased by nearly 1.6 percent last year (with the outliers cited above omitted from the calculation), compared with a national increase of 0.1 percent. Still, the average base salary in the South last year was $498,000, slightly more than $200K shy of the national average of $707,000.
The slow growth in the economy generally is likely to blame for the down or close to flat numbers for general counsel, says Bob Graff, an Atlanta-based partner and recruiter in the in-house practice group at legal search consultants Major, Lindsey & Africa.
“In the years immediately following the recession, it was easier to bounce back because you’re just getting back to where you’ve been,” he says. “Now you’re plowing new ground; you’re trying to grow above and beyond where you’ve ever been, and that’s harder.”
But there’s reason for optimism, given companies’ future-looking performance, particularly in industries such as commercial real estate, banking—strong fields in Charlotte and Birmingham, Alabama—as well as Nashville, Tennessee’s health care and Atlanta’s booming fintech industries, says Steven Lynch, managing partner of the legal division for The Lucas Group, an executive search firm.
“The past couple years it seemed flat, but I’ll bet you’ll see companies outperforming their expectations this year. All you have to do is look at the skyline to know that,” says Lynch, referring to the number of construction cranes that have returned to metropolitan Atlanta after disappearing during the recession of 2007–09. “As these institutions do well, their GCs are going to see a better package because the cash component is going to be up.”
Despite the trend of decreased compensation, plenty of GCs got pay increases last year. Take Mark Sustana of Miami-based Lennar, for example. He raked in a base salary of $450,000 plus a $32,400 cash bonus and $642,600 in nonequity, bringing his total take-home cash amount to $1,125,000. And then there’s John Parker of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises, who took home $1,074,771 in total cash compensation—a nice boost from his 2014 take-home cash amount of $948,679.
Energy and financial services are known as two industries that pay GCs particularly well. But a quick look at some of the GCs’ base salaries in the South shows a remarkably competitive market, regardless of geography and industry. For instance, Jonathan Ferrando of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based AutoNation Inc. had a base salary of $700,000 last year, while Steven Ford of Charlotte-based Carlisle Companies Inc., a glass and building materials company, brought home a $657,000 salary.
And then there’s Denise Keane of Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group, who, between her base salary and nonequity incentive compensation, raked in a whopping take-home cash amount of $2,262,667. Tobacco is called a cash crop for a reason.
It’s worth noting that in-house counsel compensation in general is increasing. According to a 2016 survey released by legal staffing and consulting firm Robert Half Legal, in-house counsel at large companies with 10-plus years’ experience saw a starting salary range from $179,000 to $251,500 in 2015; in 2016, it jumped 3.4 percent to a range of $185,250 to $259,750. GCs at small and midsize companies saw similar gains.
“GC pay is affected by the broader business results rather than individual or legal department performance,” says Todd Sirras, managing director of Semler Brossy Consulting Group. “Just by virtue of their role as an executive officer of the company, [GCs] arguably have as much influence as the CFO or the CEO in setting strategy, and they get paid on their results.”