Here’s how the pay of CEOs of Minnesota’s biggest companies compares to their average workers

A we're-hiring sign is posted outside of a Target store on Feb. 12, 2019 in Sausalito, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

CEO pay at Minnesota’s Fortune 500 companies was 278 times more on average than the pay of median workers at their companies in 2018, an analysis of data from company proxy statements shows.

The Dodd Frank Act’s requirement that public companies report ratios of CEO-to-median worker pay, effective in 2018, was met with protest by many corporations, while labor advocates cheered the mandate as a window into what they deem excessive executive pay. In Minnesota, the ratios span a wide range, from 110-to-1 at agricultural cooperative CHS, Inc. to 767-to-1 at Target.

CEO pay in the United States has ballooned in the last several decades, increasing roughly 940% from 1978 to 2018 at the nation’s 350 largest companies, adjusted for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, think tank. Meanwhile, wages of the typical worker have grown 11.9%. Back in 1978, CEOs made about 30 times more than the average worker, a ratio that has exploded since then. 

Researchers haven’t found a definitive explanation for the growth in executive compensation, but studies have pointed to a few possible reasons, including an increase in the size of U.S. firms and CEOs’ abilities to find new investment opportunities. The spike in executive pay accounts for at least some of the rise in income inequality in the United States, experts say, as most income gain in the last few decades has gone to the country’s top-paid employees.

Congress didn’t specify why it directed the Securities and Exchanges Commission to adopt the pay ratio disclosure rule under the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010 to increase regulations on the financial industry following the financial crisis of 2008. Based on the legislation, the SEC determined its intent is to give shareholders more information to evaluate CEO compensation. Two years after the rule went into effect, researchers haven’t identified a significant impact from the pay ratio disclosures.

The CEO compensation ratio can provide a snapshot of pay distribution at public companies, but the data comes with a few caveats. Importantly, the Securities and Exchange Commission didn’t specify exactly how companies should calculate compensation, so they use different methodologies to come up with the figures; for example, some companies include overtime pay in their median worker calculations, while others do not.

Additionally, the median worker can look vastly different depending on the company and industry. At Target — which had the highest CEO-to-median worker pay ratio in Minnesota, and the lowest median worker pay — the median worker is part-time, the company noted in its proxy statement. A large proportion of Best Buy’s employees are part-time as well, a Best Buy spokesperson wrote in an email to Minnesota Reformer.

A Target store employee collects shopping carts to bring back into the store on Aug. 21, 2019 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The pay ratio tends to depend more on median worker pay than the executive’s compensation, a study by consulting firm Pearl Meyer found. The median worker made less than $14,000 at eight of the 10 United States companies with the highest pay ratios, according to an Equilar report of the nation’s 200 highest-paid CEOs

Researchers have found that ratios also vary by industry. Companies in the consumer sectors — like retailers and food manufacturers — have the highest ratios, while those in financials and utilities have the lowest, according to Pearl Meyer.

An Xcel Energy spokesperson said in an email to Minnesota Reformer that CEO Ben Fowke’s pay — which totaled $12.1 million in 2018, while the median employee earned $108,946 — is largely performance-based and linked to goals like reducing carbon emissions.  The company’s carbon emissions dropped 38% between 2005 and 2018, according to its website.

“Our executive compensation is market competitive, provides vested interest in the company’s long-term success by awarding equity grants and is strongly tied to achieving superior business results. Our compensation programs encourage high-performing executives to stay and continue leading Xcel Energy,” a statement from the company reads.

Ecolab’s CEO compensation is also “market-competitive,” a spokesperson said in an email to Minnesota Reformer. An outside firm determined the pay was “aligned with performance, and that the company’s compensation practices are of low concern,” the spokesperson wrote.

At Ecolab, the median employee made $54,285, according to its 2019 proxy statement, while CEO Douglas Baker Jr. was compensated $14.3 million. The company’s revenues increased 6% year-over-year in 2018, to $146.6 billion, according to its annual report.

A General Mills spokesperson said in an email that the company believes its executive pay — $9.8 million for CEO Jeff Harmening in fiscal year 2019, compared to $57,177 for the median employee — is in line with industry averages. General Mills is “transparent on how we compensate executives with a focus on long-term incentives built around company performance,” the spokesperson said in an email to Minnesota Reformer. 

CHS, Inc. declined to comment. UnitedHealth Group, 3M, U.S. Bancorp, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Ameriprise Financial, Mosaic, Hormel Foods and Polaris Industries did not respond to request for comment. Cargill Inc. — one of Minnesota’s largest companies, which brought in $113.5 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2019 — is not required to make proxy statements or annual reports public, since it’s a privately held company.

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.