Ameriprise CEO Cracchiolo pockets a quiet windfall

Driven by stock options, Ameriprise’s chief rose to the heights of pay rankings not just in Minnesota, but nationally. Observers say his pay is typical for the finance industry.

Ever since Ameriprise Financial Inc. spun out of American Express in 2005, Jim Cracchiolo has been one of Minnesota’s highest-paid CEOs.

But last year’s megapaycheck swept Cracchiolo not just to the top of the Star Trib­une’s annual executive compensation report for the first time, but also into the echelons of the nation’s highest-paid financial industry CEOs.

The $46 million Cracchiolo took home in compensation, largely powered by $35 million he made taking advantage of a pile of stock options, vaulted him far beyond peers like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express Co. According to a Forbes survey, Blankfein took home $21 million and Chenault $31.8 million.

Among the country’s financial services leaders, only Laurence Fink, head of global asset manager BlackRock Inc., earned more than Cracchiolo last year. Fink raked in $75.8 million, the Forbes survey showed.

Even John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo & Co., now the world’s largest bank by market cap and with a major presence in the Twin Cities, had to get by on less than $12 million.

The company declined a request for an interview. An Ameriprise spokesman, asked for an explanation of Cracchiolo’s pay, explained that last year was the first time he exercised any of his Ameriprise stock options, many of which were set to expire in 2014 or 2015. In the past, Cracchiolo had exercised options he received at American Express before the spinoff.

While Cracchiolo’s $46 million payday is not a record in the Star Tribune survey — CEOs at UnitedHealth and Target have taken home more than $100 million in years past — it’s enough to buy a few ranches for a steak dinner. It includes $35,000 in perks to cover extras such as the cost of his financial planning, use of a company-leased apartment in Minneapolis, club fees and a car and driver. It also covers use of the corporate jet.

Paul Hodgson, an independent compensation analyst who conducts Forbes’ pay surveys, said Cracchiolo’s pay is typical for the finance industry, long known for lavish CEO pay packages. Stock options concern him.

“My beef with stock options in general is that they reward executives for the whole of any increase in stock price, regardless of whether it was driven by a general market increase or the exceptional management of the company by the CEO,” Hodgson said.

But he said that following the public backlash after the 2008 financial crisis, some banks and financial companies reined in pay. Now, he added, “It’s the media and entertainment industry taking on the mantle from the finance industry.”

Not that everyone’s smiling. In the annual nonbinding say-on-pay shareholder vote this year, only 88 percent of Ameriprise shareholders voted in favor of Cracchiolo’s pay. That’s down from 92 percent last year. The vote is retrospective; this year’s vote was on last year’s pay package.

Most such say-on-pay votes fall in the 95 percent range, Hodgson said. An 88 percent result indicates “significant” disapproval, he said.

The company spokesman said the company’s performance justifies the pay. Cracchiolo handled the company’s spinout from American Express and is credited with transforming Ameriprise since then into a leading retail financial services firm — and one with $2 billion in cash.

Ameriprise shares closed Friday at $88.18. At that price, someone who invested in Ameriprise when it debuted as a public company in 2005 would have seen at least a 150 percent return on their money. By contrast, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index returned less than 50 percent since then.

The company has raised its dividend several times in recent years. Last year it returned more than 100 percent of the year’s operating profits to shareholders via dividends and stock buybacks.

Critics of excessive CEO pay, however, say it’s not just about shareholder returns.

“When compensation jackpots are this big, they encourage CEOs to do whatever it takes to hit them,” said Sarah Anderson, a director at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies who focuses on excessive CEO pay. “That can include risky financial decisions, cutting corners on training, and other behaviors that can hurt the company and the broader economy years down the road.”

Ameriprise was one of 25 U.S. corporations lambasted for tax avoidance in the institute’s 2011 “Executive Excess” report showing how the companies paid their CEOs more in 2010 than what they ultimately paid Uncle Sam in corporate income taxes.

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