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Tech firm CEOs more restrained than most at limiting personal pay

Except Larry Ellison, of course

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If you want to see the greatest disparity between the average worker and the CEO's pay packet, America is the place to be. But while the heads of many blue-chip US firms cash in more than most, the country's technology bosses are more abstemious.

Since 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission has required publicly-traded companies to produce figures on the ratio of the CEO's pay to that of the median pay level of their staff. The latest figures on the top 250 corporate pay disparities in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, analyzed by Bloomberg, shows barely ten technology firms in the top 100 companies, and some big names not even making the rankings.

According to data from the AFL-CIO trade-union organization, which each year analyses corporate pay levels, the average ratio of CEO pay to that of their staff rose from 42:1 back in 1982 to 354:1 last year. Of the companies on the list, the CEOs of only nine technology firms were greedier than this.

Top of the tech list is, of course, Oracle's Larry Ellison – a man who surely doesn't need the money but likes everyone to know how much he's worth. Larry took home $96.2m last year, creating a CEO/worker ratio of 1,287 – making him fourth on the list behind the bosses of JCPenney, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the Simon Property Group.

The next highest tech CEO greed-head, 15th in the rankings, is eBay's John Donahue, whose $29.7m pay packet is 656 times his median worker's wage. Other big names taking more than their share include the CEOs of Viacom and Comcast, with Qualcomm's boss Paul Jacobs getting the CEO/staff ratio spot on the national average of a 354:1 score.

Meanwhile, companies such as Intel, Dell, HP, Xerox, and IBM all keep their CEO salary rations lower than 400:1. Right at the bottom of the 250 company list is William Sullivan, CEO of Agilent Technologies – home of the smart people from HP who saw which way the wind was blowing and jumped ship – with a CEO to staff ratio of 173, which is more in keeping with HP's original corporate ideas before Fiorina reinvented the company.

Firms such as Microsoft and Google don't feature in this list, largely due to the peculiarities of their management. Google's Page and Brin only paid themselves a dollar in salary last year, as is their habit, and Steve Ballmer pays himself less than $2m in direct wages, although he has a private stock portfolio estimated to be worth well over a billion dollars.

There are also some late pay announcements that didn't make it onto the list. Last month, games publisher Activision Blizzard's CEO Robert Kotick announced he was raising his executive compensation from $8.33m last year to $64.9m – which given the parlous pay of people at the sharp end of the games industry must make the company's CEO/worker pay ratio among the highest in the land.

The list isn't perfect, of course – it only covers a very limited subset of CEOs. The heads of the top 25 US hedge funds, for example, are reported to have shared $14.4bn in wages last year, the bulk of designated as lowly-taxed carried interest, and private firms don't have to release their data.

You could well argue that Larry Ellison has a perfect right to pay himself oodles of cash. After all, he cofounded Oracle and is the driving force behind its success. If he wants to take money out of his firm to spend on hauntingly beautiful boats or a Hawaiian island or two then that's his business.

But Larry's an outlier – in more ways than one – and looking through the list the fattest cats of the CEO clowder, there aren't many who have Ellison's credentials. Most are CEOs who inherited a company and convinced the board that this is what they are worth.

Meanwhile, for IT workers in the trenches, pay rates have remained stagnant or have dropped over the last 14 years. It's got to stick in the craw somewhat when staff are being asked to work longer hours for less pay (even forced to buy their own hardware) and suffer shakier job security when this mantra only seems to apply to the workers, not the bosses. ®

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