Remote control; These CEOs manage from a distance

Posted: June 24, 2010

Decades ago, when most of Philadelphia's largest companies had their headquarters here, the region's highest-paid executives were also neighbors, working on area boards and coaching their children's sports teams, as Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts once did in Chestnut Hill.

These days, major companies have big operations here, but their headquarters and chief executives often are elsewhere, from Connecticut to Denver.

For the most part, their personal involvement in the region is minor, especially when it comes to discussing their compensation.

The work of these CEOs has significant influence on the Delaware Valley, especially for the tens of thousands of residents they employ.

These executives make for a richly compensated lot, but not a particularly communicative one. We wanted to know more about each of them, as well as their perspectives on their Philadelphia operations and their personal experiences here. But no-go; every single executive contacted for this story declined, through a company spokesperson, to be interviewed.

Here are brief summaries of the five highest-paid executives who are headquartered somewhere other than the Philadelphia region yet wield considerable power in this market.

With a 2009 compensation package calculated by executive compensation research firm Equilar at $87.5 million, the area's best-paid executive, local or remote, is Gregory Maffei, 49, CEO of Liberty Media Corp.The Denver-based media giant owns the QVC shopping network in West Chester, where 2,500 of QVC's 9,500 employees work.

Other holdings include Sirius XM Radio, Starz Entertainment, Expedia and the Atlanta Braves, along with minority interests in Time Warner and Sprint Nextel Corp.

Maffei grew up in New York, but fell in love with Seattle, where he worked side by side with Bill Gates as the chief financial officer of Microsoft Corp. in the mid-1990s. That's when he met John Malone, chairman of Liberty Media. The two established rapport, so much so that Malone played a practical joke on Maffei while he was trying to recruit him from Oracle Corp. to Liberty Media.

Even though Malone had floated a rumor that he wanted to hire Maffei to replace retiring CEO Robert "Dob" Bennett, Malone called Maffei twice seeking recommendations, but never asked Maffei if he would like the job. "I think John was having a little bit of fun," Maffei laughed, in an interview with the now defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

Maffei and his wife, Sharon, have four children, including their two youngest, seven-year-old twins.

Maffei is an avid athlete. In Seattle, he loved to sail and owned a share in Seattle SuperSonics basketball team. In Denver, he became an accomplished skier, tackling the black diamond slopes with dispatch.

By contrast, if top Aetna Corp. executive Ronald A. Williams, 60, knows anything about sports, including that the Eagles are a Philadelphia team, it's probably because he memorized the fact to prepare for an interview.

Colleagues know Williams, who works out of the insurance company's headquarters in Hartford, Conn., as a man who doesn't follow sports and doesn't understand sports analogies.

Williams, who earned $16.4 million last year, isn't a regular visitor in the area, even though Aetna employs close to 4,000 here, most of them in Blue Bell.

Lately Williams has been spending a lot of time in Washington D.C., where he had a role in lobbying for key components of the massive health care legislation enacted in March.

In May, he introduced President Obama at the annual meeting of the Business Council in Washington. The night before, Williams had been one of 13 chief executives to eat dinner at the White House.

He told CNBC's "Squawk Box" that the president understands that "if we want real job growth in America, it's going to take American businesses to do it."

The president and Williams have Chicago in common, where Williams and an older brother grew up in a four-unit brick apartment building, according to a profile in the Hartford Courant. His father was a parking lot attendant, and later a bus driver. His mother was a part-time manicurist and Williams worked in a car wash during high school.

As a manager, he tends to be hands-on. When he worked at WellPoint Health Networks in California, he had his office wired so he could monitor how long customers had to wait before their calls were answered. When the waits lasted longer than two minutes, Williams would want to know why.

Williams' professional career began with a stint as a junior aide in the governor's office in Illinois and then gradually moved into insurance.

By contrast, Ivan Seidenberg, 63, who leads New York-based Verizon Communications Inc., started in the telephone business and is still in it, although the nature of the business has changed significantly.

Born in the Bronx, Seidenberg began his career in the mid-1960s as a telephone cable-splicer's assistant, assigned to the Bronx River Garage. Every so often, he returns for coffee with his former crew.

In a recent speech, he recalled a time on a cable truck when he knocked a hospital out of phone service while cutting an old cable into a new one.

"I screwed up the wiring and I cut a hospital out of service. You know? And I remember my foreman calling me up and saying, 'Get your butt out here and fix it,'" he said. The next day, he got a major dressing down from the boss.

In the same speech, Seidenberg said knowledge is the key to power - in any room, the person with the first new fact "ends up dominating the discussion." That's why, he said, he tries to learn something new from everyone he encounters.

He advises young people to understand that "somebody's always watching you. And so, every little thing you do on the job, off the job, people watch . . . They watch the way you talk, what you say, what your standards are."

And, he added, "don't be high-maintenance, because guys like me, if you're high-maintenance, get rid of you."

Whether or not Seidenberg himself is high-maintenance, he's certainly highly paid, with a total 2009 compensation package of $17 million, down from $20 million the prior year. Verizon employs 17,000 each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with most of the Pennsylvania staff working in the Philadelphia area, a spokesman said.

Lockheed Martin Corp. chairman, president and chief executive Robert J. Stevens, 58, also took a compensation cut in 2009, earning $20.5 million, down from $22.9 million. The defense supplier's headquarters is Bethesda, Md., while 10,174 people work in this region - Newtown, King of Prussia, Valley Forge, Moorestown and Cherry Hill.

Stevens was born in McKeesport, near Pittsburgh, and he graduated from Slippery Rock University in western Pennsylvania. He earned a master's degree in engineering and management at Polytechnic University in New York and another master's in business administration from Columbia University.

But, he said in a recent speech, "I did not learn about leadership in business school. I learned it as an 18-year-old in the Marines . . . In that experience, you are immersed in a culture of excellence."

The newest recruit on the roster of executives who live and lead from afar is John G. Stumpf, 56, chairman, president and chief executive of Wells Fargo & Co., which managed to grab Wachovia Corp. in October 2008.

The deal doubled Wells Fargo's customer base, which may be why Stumpf's 2009 compensation also more than doubled, growing from $9 million to $18.8 million.

In the Philadelphia area, Stumpf now presides over $26.9 billion in deposits, 6,000 employees, 191 branches and one frequently renamed sports arena.

No doubt naming rights includes corporate boxes, but Stumpf probably won't be a regular. He told the San Francisco Chronicle last year that he plans to keep Wells Fargo firmly embedded in San Francisco, where Stumpf serves on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"This is our home," Stumpf said. "We've been here over 157 years and frankly, of the many, many things I think about every day, that's one I don't think about.

"It's not only here because of history reasons. California is our biggest market, so there is a business reason.

"If there ever comes a point in time where it doesn't make business sense to be here, to serve our customer, we'll have to make a decision then. I hope it doesn't because I love living here."

A Minnesota native, he earned his bachelor's degree in finance at St. Cloud State University and followed it with a master's degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota.


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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