Tuesday, September 19, 2006

He works hard for his money

Next time you're inclined to cavil about the big bucks earned by CEOs, consider the plight of Dennis J. FitzSimons, who is making peanuts as he labors mightily to hold together the Tribune Co.

Reasonable men may differ as to whether the Chicago-based media giant ought to be held together, with certain of the company’s shareholders chief among them. But that’s what Dennis is trying to do.

And he’s getting bubkes for his efforts. While contending with mounting challenges on several fronts, Dennis is the second-worst paid CEO of any publicly held publishing company.

As illustrated in the table below, the Trib boss makes only 22 cents in annual compensation per $1,000 in sales, as compared with the $6.51-per-thousand collected by Gordon Paris, the soon-to-exit chief of the Chicago Tribune’s cross-town rival, the Sun-Times Media Group.

The only newspaper CEO pocketing less than Dennis is Donald E. Graham, the Washington Post scion, who makes a mere 11 cents per thousand in sales. Unlike Dennis, who owns nary a share of his company’s stock, Donnie has about $400 million of his company’s shares to console him.

This is the thanks Dennis gets for all he is doing? With a potentially pivotal board meeting coming up Thursday to decide his company’s fate, he must:

:: Mollify his second-largest bloc of shareholders, the Chandler family. The Times-Mirror heirs earlier this year publicly castigated Tribune’s management in a campaign to get a better deal on the taxes they might have to pay on $3.5 billion in investment partnerships they own jointly with Tribune Co.

:: Address rising pressure from long-time institutional shareholders to sell some or all of Tribune’s assets. “The fact that the value of the assets of Tribune significantly exceeds the current stock price is indisputable,” Charles Bobrinskoy of Ariel Capital told the Wall Street Journal. “We at Ariel have every confidence that the board will take those steps.”

:: Appease a new cadre of activist investors including Davidson Kempner Capital Management and Nelson Peltz. Mr. Peltz recently waged a successful proxy battle to gain two seats on the H.J. Heinz board, where he said “a little dysfunction” might be needed to get the company moving faster than its famous ketchup flows.

:: Batten down a revolt at his largest paper, the Los Angeles Times, where the publisher and editor are refusing to accede to further corporate-requested budget cuts. Their public protest and a supporting petition from a couple dozen L.A. power brokers caused Dennis to issue an extraordinary four-page letter defending Tribune’s stewardship of the paper.

In his spare time, Dennis is trying to rally a major media company, whose $5.6 billion in sales are flat, whose profits are skidding and whose stock price is barely 10% over its 52-week low.

“What’s not to like about the newspaper business?” observed Nick Shuman, an old colleague from Chicago. “It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting.”

In the case of Tribune’s CEO, Nick would be half right. It’s only indoor work.