Japan's Highest-Paid Company Executives Aren't Actually Japanese

1469045893_Nikesh-Arora-lede

Nikesh Arora, former president and chief operating officer of SoftBank.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
  • Eight of last year’s 10 best-paid bosses hail from overseas
  • Former SoftBank COO Arora was No. 1 with $76 million total pay

In Japan, expatriates rule when it comes to the biggest pay packages.

Foreigners held eight of the top 10 spots on Bloomberg’s ranking of the country’s best-paid executives last year. SoftBank Group Corp.’s former Chief Operating Officer Nikesh Arora, whose 8 billion yen ($76 million) package topped the list, hails from India. Joseph DePinto, a director of Seven & i Holdings Co. who came in second, and Ronald Fisher, a director at SoftBank who ranked third, are both Americans.

U.S.-sized compensation packages have long been considered taboo in Asia’s second-largest economy. Higher wages in Japan were typically earned by sticking around, thanks to rigid corporate promotion systems based on tenure.

“Traditionally, Japanese employees have been expected to remain at one company and have their salaries go up based on seniority instead of performance,” said Ryota Kimura, a general manager at Japan Exchange Group Inc. and the bourse’s chief representative in New York. “Foreigners don’t fit into that system.”

In the U.S., executives have reaped the benefits of a shift from cash to equity-based compensation tied to their companies’ performance -- a change that sent pay packages spiraling in recent decades as the stock market soared. Promotions or job changes often come with signing bonuses or special share awards.

In Japan, raises have traditionally been tied to length of employment, eliminating the option to get better pay by switching roles. Bosses have also enjoyed more job security than their Western colleagues since interlocking shareholdings between Japanese companies helped create a static environment that wasn’t conducive to change.

For a QuickTake explainer on executive pay, click here.

Some companies have abandoned the country’s modest pay practices to attract foreign hires. Arora was recruited to SoftBank from Google Inc. and became one of the world’s best-paid bosses in 2014 with a 16.6 billion yen package, a record in Japan.

One quarter of Arora’s 2015 pay came in equity, with the remainder in cash. That’s an uncommon mix for a country where many compensation packages to top bosses are entirely cash-based. The U.S. is on the opposite side of the spectrum, with CEOs at S&P 500 Index companies receiving an average 60 percent of their target pay in equity awards, much of it tied to performance metrics, according to the Bloomberg Pay Index.

Changes might be coming in Japan. The government introduced a set of corporate governance practices last year in an effort to make businesses boost investor returns and increase boardroom diversity and transparency. The code includes a provision recommending that executives get paid both in cash and stock, with some compensation tied to longer-term goals. Interlocking stock ownership between companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange fell to 16 percent in 2015 from 50 percent in 1990, according to data from Nomura Holdings Inc.

SoftBank’s Slump

Last year’s biggest pay packages for Japan executives born in the country were Fanuc Corp. CEO Yoshiharu Inaba’s 690 million yen and Sony Corp. CEO Kazuo Hirai’s 513 million yen, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Hirai saw his pay more than double from 206 million yen in 2014 since his bonus that year was clawed back for reasons that weren’t disclosed, according to a filing.

Still, the country’s largest packages can’t yet compete with those in the U.S. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the CEO of cancer-research firm NantKwest Inc., was awarded compensation valued at $329.7 million at the end of the California-based company’s 2015 fiscal year thanks to stock options that soared in value.

There’s no guarantee that higher pay will lead to a better outcome for shareholders. Softbank shares, which sank 10 percent on Tuesday, have retreated almost 30 percent since the company announced Arora’s hire in July 2014. He quit Softbank less than two years later, defying expectations that he would eventually inherit the top job from founder Masayoshi Son. U.S. regulators are examining whether Arora had conflicts of interest or engaged in questionable behavior during his tenure, people familiar with the matter said last month. He hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE