Decrease in the salaries of top managers in the past five years

Results of a European study into the salaries of top managers at listed companies

The United Kingdom has the best-paid CEOs of our neighbouring countries. Belgium features at the bottom of the list, but is not really lagging behind much. It is worth noting that share-related remuneration is decreasing in all countries. In Belgium, salaries in general have dropped, save for those in the smallest listed companies, which are clearly gaining ground. Finally, the fixed-salary share of the total package has registered a sharp increase in 2012.

These are the main conclusions of the yearly study into the salaries of top managers conducted by Vlerick Business School’s Executive Remuneration Research Centre. The 2012 sample included 650 listed companies from Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom. Particular attention was paid to the differences between 2007 and 2012, which allow us to assess the impact of the crisis.

Our neighbouring countries: the UK has the best-paid CEOs

The United Kingdom is the clear leader in terms of total remuneration (including fixed salary, bonuses and share-related remuneration). The largest companies – with a combined turnover of over 5 billion euro – pay their CEOs 4,710,000 euro (median). Germany ranks second with 3,100,000 euro, followed, albeit not closely, by The Nederlands (2,470,000 euro) and France (2,290,000 euro). Belgium closes the ranking with 1,980,000 euro.

Share-related remuneration is losing ground

There appears to be a strong link between the size of the company and the CEO’s remuneration. Professor Xavier Baeten explains: “68% of the differences between companies in terms of their CEOs’ remuneration are linked to the size of the companies. The country where the company is based only accounts for 29% of the differences and its results for a mere 2.6%. The biggest ‘loser’ in the past five years is share-related remuneration, across all countries except for Germany.” Share-related remuneration appears to be most popular in The Netherlands and Germany, where about half of all companies award it to their CEOs.

Large salary gaps within Belgium

In Belgium the situation is fragmented. Remuneration has decreased in the Bel-20 companies (-11%) and in the Bel-Mid companies (-12%), but has risen in the Bel-Small companies (+31%). “Apparently the smallest listed companies are gaining ground. It is worth noting that the salary gap between the Bel-Small and the Bel-Mid companies was fairly wide,” says Xavier Baeten.

Another interesting finding is that not only has the amount of the remuneration changed, its composition has also evolved. In 2007 the fixed salary in the Bel-20 companies accounted for 37% of the total remuneration. In 2012 this figure had risen to 56%. In other words, variability has dropped, which becomes apparent from the rise in the fixed salary.

In Belgium share-related remuneration has also registered a sharp drop. In 2012 53% of the Bel-20 companies adopted this type of remuneration, compared to 12% of the Bel-Mid companies and 17% of the Bel-Small companies. Five years ago the figures were 85%, 40% and 22% respectively.

Also striking is the popularity of stock options, which makes Belgium stand out among other European countries, which tend to prefer shares. Xavier Baeten believes the reason for this popularity lies in the Belgian fiscal system. “It’s high time for Belgium to review the taxation of share-related remuneration, because at the moment, our fiscal system encourages stock options, while research has shown that the latter encourage greater risk-taking.”

The study also revealed that CEOs earn a little more than double the other members of the management committee, and that non-financial performance indicators are increasingly being used. A few examples are leadership, customer satisfaction, reduction of CO2 emissions and employee commitment.

Xavier Baeten concludes: “In the past five years, the salaries of top managers have been closely scrutinised, undoubtedly because of the crisis, but presumably also due to increased regulation. That being said, it remains a challenge for companies to step away from their ‘box-ticking’ mentality and to (continue to) focus on bringing the company strategy and culture in line with the salary of their CEO.”


Compared to other research into CEO remuneration, this study offers unique added value. Firstly, because several European countries were included in the analysis, allowing for a comparison between the Anglo-Saxon corporate model and the continental European model. Secondly, the study assessed remuneration in all listed companies, whereas earlier research had only focused on the largest companies. Thirdly, the database linked to this study is updated on a yearly basis, allowing for the analysis of evolutions over longer periods of time.


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