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CEO’s Risky Bargain: Performance-Based Contracting

Larry Culp, GE’s CEO, recently garnered acclaim by Wall Street for saving this iconic company created by Thomas Edison that was foundering in debt. In exchange for taking on such a Herculean task, Culp demanded an executive contract from GE’s board that was performance based when he was initially hired.  Culp’s belief in himself and his abilities paid off.

In this article, we discuss how executives can follow Culp’s model to collect substantial rewards in exchange for a risky bargain. Read on to learn more about executive compensation through “performance-based contracting.”


What is Performance-Based Contracting and Why Does It Matter to Executives?

Performance-based contracting is an executive compensation structure that directly ties an executive’s pay to the company’s performance. Unlike traditional compensation methods that may include fixed salaries and bonuses, performance-based contracts focus on specific, measurable outcomes such as revenue growth, stock price appreciation, or other key financial metrics. This alignment between pay and performance incentivizes executives to drive the company’s success and ensures that their interests are closely tied to those of the shareholders.

This type of compensation structure benefits executives in a number of reasons:

    1. High Rewards: Executives under performance-based contracts often face significant pressure to meet ambitious targets. This can be daunting. However, the rewards for achieving these goals can be substantial, including lucrative bonuses, stock options, and other incentives.
    2. Market Leadership: Executives who successfully navigate performance-based contracts can significantly enhance their reputation in the industry.
    3. Strategic Impact: By focusing on measurable outcomes, executives can directly influence the company’s direction and success.

The risk and rewards are an important element for executives to consider when trying to decide whether to offer performance-based compensation in salary negotiations.  Here ae some of the down sides to keep in mind:

    1. High Stakes: The pressure to meet performance targets can be intense.  Failure to achieve these goals can result in reduced compensation or, in some cases, no “reward” at all.
    2. External Factors: Market volatility, economic downturns, or industry disruptions can impact a company’s performance, making it harder for an executive to meet assigned targets.
    3. Short-Term Focus: The nature of performance-based contracting may incentivize an executive to prioritize short-term gains over long-term stability, potentially jeopardizing the executive’s retirement fund.

With wise contemplation of these and other factors, performance-based contracts offer substantial financial rewards and career benefits, making them an attractive option for ambitious executives.

Larry Culp: A Case Study in Performance-Based Contracting

Larry Culp’s success at GE serves as a powerful example of the potential rewards of performance-based contracting. When Culp took over as CEO in 2018, GE was struggling with a massive debt load and declining shareholder confidence. His compensation package was uniquely structured around the company’s recovery from the crippling debt, particularly tied to improving GE’s stock price and the company’s long-term financial health.

Culp raised money by divesting units.  He took apart apart America’s most storied conglomerate and divided GE into three remaining businesses.  They are big enough to stand alone and fund themselves, recruit talent, all of the things necessary to run solid business operations.

Also, Culp preached a renewed focus on the customer and a philosophy of process optimization taken from Toyota’s vaunted kaizen methods. Culp spent weeks at a time at GE factories, walking the floor with managers and engineers as they sought to speed up workflows and eliminate inefficiencies.

What we Learn from Culp’s Journey:

    • Proven Success: Culp’s proven track record and his ability to meet challenging performance targets resulted in significant financial rewards for GE.  Culp knew his abilities and believed in himself.
    • Industry Recognition: Culp’s success earned him acclaim from Wall Street and positioned him as a leader in the industry.  This recognition gave partnering companies confidence to work with Culp in taking GE into new ventures.
    • Blueprint for Success: Executives can learn by studying Culp’s approach to navigating a complex, high-stakes environment.  Business schools now offer courses based on how Culp turned GE around.

Under Culp’s leadership, GE saw notable improvements in its financial metrics. As the company’s stock price increased, Culp’s performance-based compensation paid him substantial financial rewards, propelling him into an elite group of U.S. executives who have earned significant fortunes.  Culp’s decisions not only improved GE’s financial stability but also enhanced Culp’s own financial well-being.   As stated in Forbes, “He’ll join a small club of 15 US chief executive who have amassed 10-figure fortunes.”  

Larry Culp’s tenure at GE underscores the immense potential of performance-based contracts to drive company success and deliver substantial personal rewards for executives who can rise to the challenge.


Why Executives Should Consider Performance-Based Contracting

For executives and C-suite leaders, performance-based contracts offer a compelling opportunity to maximize compensation while driving company success. Here’s why this matters:

Aligning Interests with Shareholders: Performance-based contracts ensure that executives’ financial incentives are directly tied to the company’s performance metrics. This alignment fosters a unified focus on achieving goals that enhance shareholder value, creating a win-win situation for both executives and investors.

Fostering Accountability and Transparency: Executives under performance-based contracts are held accountable for achieving specific targets, promoting a culture of transparency and rigorous performance tracking. This accountability reassures shareholders, board members, and even the employees, that the executive is dedicated to the company’s long-term success.

Encouraging Strategic Decision-Making: By linking compensation to measurable outcomes, performance-based contracts encourage executives to make strategic decisions that drive growth and stability. This focus on results-driven leadership can lead to innovative solutions and bold initiatives that benefit the company in the long run.

Mitigating Risks with Expert Legal Guidance: While the potential rewards are significant, performance-based contracts come with inherent risks.  You must structure your contract carefully to ensure that the terms are fair, achievable, and aligned with the company’s long-term goals. Expert legal guidance can help by brainstorming the various legal scenarios.  You lawyer can ensure, too that the contract’s terms are favorable to you and compliant with relevant laws.

Achieving Long-Term Success: The success of executives like Larry Culp demonstrates the transformative power of performance-based contracts. By carefully considering and negotiating these compensation structures, executives can position themselves to achieve substantial rewards while driving their companies toward greater success.

There are many different forms of executive compensation.  While performance-based contracting is a risky one, in the right scenario—such as Larry Culp’s situation at GE—it can pay off tenfold.

Contact an Expert

At Gardner Employment Law, we specialize in designing and negotiating executive compensation packages that support with your strategic vision. Contact us today to learn how performance-based contracts can benefit you.

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