By Lisa Bergson These days, the media is full of stories about greedy executives and their bloated compensation packages. Here's a new one. How about a CEO who works for free? I know one well: Me, and I'm not alone, either. I know other, way-underpaid small-business owners, also struggling to survive the semiconductor industry's steepest, longest downturn. Rather than lose key employees, antagonize critical vendors, and upset the bank, we sacrifice ourselves.
Since March, I have not received a salary, nor am I accruing compensation. Moreover, with my new business scrambling to get on its feet and my 55-year-old company reeling from three years of plummeting sales, I have had to impose hardships on my employees and austerity measures on our operation. So far, with the exception of one short-timer, all my employees have stuck it out (knock on wood). I used to imagine that they appreciated the fact that I have taken the ultimate cut.
CHECKS AND SHRINKING BALANCES. Unlike most of my people, I can rely upon my spouse to help me through these hard times. But even long before we met, I always took the biggest cut out of my not-very-big salary whenever MEECO hit a rough patch. In those days, I also asked salaried employees earning over $75,000 to take hefty reductions, keeping whole those making under $25,000. There, you're talking children's lunch money.
It makes sense to me to impose the deepest cuts on those in the best position to sustain them. That's still how I treat (or maybe abuse) myself. Yet, I've found that even my loyal and supportive team doesn't share my philosophy. Instead of taxing the rich, so to speak, they believe everyone should suffer equally.
"The people who make more -- there's a reason for that. So, having them take a bigger pay cut doesn't seem fair," as Calvin Krusen, our director of engineering, sees it. He has no such qualms about my involuntary servitude. "You have more of a vested interest than the rest of us," Calvin reasons. "Besides, you can always liquidate and take what's left." (That "what's left" could be zilch apparently eludes him.)
LESS WORK, LESS PAY. My staff also rejects the very notion of pay cuts. "A pay cut says, 'Please do the same work for less,'" according to Calvin. "A four-day work week at least gives you a chance to spend more time with your family and fix things around the house." My employees have all been on four-day work weeks since last spring. They all take unpaid extra days off over the holidays. Wages have been frozen and there are no bonuses. That's how they want it, if that's how it's gotta be.
With my people getting less and me getting nothing, what really irks is how some of my customers, all big multinationals, keep squeezing us over prices. Hey, no one's getting rich here. We vendors are crawling all over each other for every order, and the buyers love it. One multibillion-dollar company, a longstanding customer, first asks for a volume discount on a four-unit order. They get it.
Then, they claim that someone else involved in the purchase favors a competitor. Price drops again. Next thing, they're buying just one of our analyzers at the newly discounted, highly competitive price. That was last summer. We have a verbal purchase order, but still no order. It really makes me wonder why I'm doing this. I mean, I could spend my time writing and working for the candidate of my choice instead of donating labor to the corporate titans of the world. Where's the logic?
THE POWER OF FAITH. Meanwhile, on a personal level, my dependent status is starting to take a toll. My husband has become a lot more snarly and unpredictable from the burden of supporting me, on top of his significant financial contribution to my new company. "I am not risk-averse," he asserts over a take-out dinner the other night. That said, he is a prudent man, who lived modestly and saved carefully before he met me. He never complains, but the pressure shows.
For my part, after working hard for 28 years, I sometimes feel like such a failure. In 2002, the median compensation for CEOs was $3,022,505, according to a new report from Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Are they really that much smarter and more capable than me? How do their companies afford it? My two businesses combined can't even pay me the minimum wage.
It starts to seem so hopeless. Why I slog on has more to do with faith than reality. I believe in my dreams. My employees believe in them, too. Although they know I'm not making money, my team fully expects me to come out on top. As do I. I even feel a slight bit guilty for my imminent good fortune. For the time being, though, I think a small raise just might be in order. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org