Belgian top salaries lower and less variable than in our neighbouring countries

Findings of a European study on top salaries in listed companies

Compared with our neighbouring countries, Belgium does not rank first as regards the level of top salaries. When comparing the remunerations of CEOs in similar companies of the same scope and listed on the stock exchange, the United Kingdom is number one, followed by Germany. Such is the conclusion of a recent survey carried out by the Executive Remuneration Research Centre at Vlerick Business School on the salaries of top managers.

The database includes remuneration data of CEOs from 372 listed companies. On the one hand, researcher Xavier Baeten (Vlerick) used as a starting point a detailed study of the salaries of the CEOs of all Belgian listed companies. And on the other, he incorporated for the first time into the analysis salary data from France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The survey takes into account both the value, and the composition of the remuneration package combined with the configuration of the equity-related reward scheme. The figures refer to 2010, and are compared to an earlier survey dating back to 2007, with some interesting findings.

The fact that salaries are lower in Belgium can be primarily attributed to the variable part of the remuneration. It turns out that even though the fixed remuneration is still competitive on the market, bonuses especially end up lower than in the neighbouring countries. The United Kingdom is the trend setter. There CEOs earn double or even triple what their counterparts make in Belgium and the other European countries included in the survey. This can be explained not only by the higher bonuses in general, but mainly by the fact that British companies are more prone to implement a share-related reward scheme.

Xavier Baeten, Head of Vlerick Reward Centre

That share-related scheme will vary wildly from country to country. Whereas in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom respectively 70% and 90% of the companies grant shares to their CEOs, in Belgium and France only approximately half of the larger quoted companies (i.e. with a total balance sheet of more than 500 million euros) do that.

Xavier Baeten also noted that Belgian salaries scarcely increased in comparison with 2007: "Among the Bel 20 companies, they even decreased (by 11%). That is mainly due to the lower bonuses allocated in 2010, with respect to 2007. Furthermore, the research shows that more and more Belgian companies publish the salary of their CEO. In 2010, this was not yet required by law, whereas it became mandatory as from 2011. In general, it can be concluded that in Belgium there certainly are no exorbitant top salaries and that there is also no immediate need for more (further) legal initiatives."

The Survey in Detail

The survey consists of two parts:
1/ The detailed survey of the salaries of the CEOs of ALL Belgian quoted companies (59 companies)
2/ The salaries of the CEOs of all quoted companies with a balance sheet total of more than 500 million euros in Belgium (31 companies), France (147 companies), Germany (75 companies), the Netherlands (40 companies), and the United Kingdom (79 companies).

Bel 20, Bel Mid, Bel Small
  • The median (average measured value) of the fixed salary of a CEO amounted to a rounded 640,000 euros (Bel 20), 350,000 euros (Bel Mid), and 280,000 euros (Bel Small).
  • In 2010, the bonus made up 76% (Bel 20), 48% (Bel Mid), and 34% (Bel Small) of the fixed salary.
  • Due to the specific tax regulation, share options (which can be exercised after a certain number of years) are the most popular form of share-related rewards. This, however, is true mostly of the Bel 20 group (67%), in comparison with the Bel Mid (40%) and the Bel Small (22%). Share-related reward schemes are generally less popular in relatively smaller quoted companies. This may have something to do with the fear of dilution.
  • Compared to 2007, the total remuneration in the Bel 20 (median: 1,470,000 euros) decreased by 11%, whereas in the Bel Mid (median: 510,000 euros) and the Bel Small (median: 375,000 euros) it increased by respectively 12% and 1%. The drop in the Bel 20 is caused mainly by the lower bonuses (the bonus increased in only 2 companies). As regards the Bel Mid companies, the fixed salary and the bonus increased in approximately half of the companies. Nonetheless, an increase of 12% over four years is rather limited. In the United States, for example, salaries increased by 12% in one year's time.
Belgium in the European context
  • The average total remuneration of a CEO in a company with a total balance sheet of more than 5 billion euros (e.g. UCB, Delhaize, Solvay) amounts to 2,275,000 euros in Belgium, 2,600,000 euros in France,  2,660,000 euros in the Netherlands,  3,320,000 euros in Germany, and 4,600,000 euros in the United Kingdom. These differences are caused by a higher variable remuneration (bonus and share-related reward scheme) in these countries in comparison with Belgium. The fixed remuneration, on the other hand, is comparable.
  • Whereas the fixed remuneration in Belgium is set at approximately the same level as in the other countries, the bonus is smaller. Looking at the whole population, this bonus amounts to 61% in Belgium (median), 73% in the Netherlands, 77% in France, 101% in Germany, and 103% in the United Kingdom.
  • Share-related reward schemes are clearly more popular in the United Kingdom (89% of the quoted companies in our sample) and in the Netherlands (68%). Belgium ranks third (58%), followed by Germany (54%) and France (51%).
  • There are considerable differences between the countries as regards the configuration of that share-related reward scheme. Whilst share options are the most common in Belgium, in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France, the majority of the shares granted can be exercised only if performance criteria have been met over several years. Linking performance criteria to the granting of shares is a major trend and is also recommended by the European Commission.

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