John Tyson’s use of Tyson Foods Inc.’s corporate jet for personal travel cost the Springdale protein producer $1.4 million in its fiscal year that ended in Oct. 1.
That amount for Tyson Foods’ chairman was the highest among executives at Arkansas’ publicly traded companies who use a corporate jet for personal trips.
Tyson’s $1.4 million value is nearly 10% more than it was the previous year, according to proxy filings with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.
Other companies also saw an increase in the value of the personal use of the company jet.
The value of the aircraft perk was up in 2022 for nine of the 15 executives who also used the benefit in 2021.
Arkansas Business reviewed proxy documents from 18 publicly traded companies based in Arkansas to report on those that offer executives the privilege of using the company jet for personal trips.
The value of that perquisite is listed as part of the executives’ total compensation in annual proxy details.
But it’s the aircraft perk that draws scrutiny.
The benefit is “inappropriate,” said Charles Elson, founding director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. “It’s like taking the company car to Disney World. The corporate aircraft is for corporate purposes.”
He said that executives are paid well, and if they want to take a private jet, they should pay for it themselves.
The value of Tyson’s use of the corporate aircraft in each of the last two fiscal years was more than his base salary of $1.2 million in fiscal 2022.
A Tyson spokesman didn’t return messages for comment by Arkansas Business’ deadline. But the company’s proxy filing said that the Compensation & Leadership Development Committee believes the perks “are reasonable and consistent with our overall compensation program.”
Tyson’s employment contract says that he’s entitled to up to 275 hours of personal use of the company jet. Donnie King, Tyson’s president and CEO, also is allowed to have personal use of the company jet. All other named executive officers were eligible for personal use of the company plane with the CEO’s discretion and subject to an overall limit created by the Compensation & Leadership Development Committee.
The committee “believes that these personal benefits provide executives with benefits that balance our compensation program and help attract executive talent,” Tyson’s filing said.
Value of the Perks
In 2022, the use of corporate jets for personal trips was climbing, said Brinkley Dickerson, a partner at the national law firm Troutman Pepper of Atlanta. Part of Dickerson’s practice area includes corporate governance.
He said there had been a lot of use of the company jets 10 to 15 years ago. “And the amounts involved attracted attention,” Dickerson said. “As a result of that, a lot of the companies changed their plans and started limiting their personal use.”
But in recent years, company boards have softened restrictions on executives’ use of the company plane. “You don’t want the CEO of a large company schlepping through the Atlanta airport in order to go to the beach for the weekend,” he said. “You rather him sit on the corporate jet for an hour … and maybe read a document or two while he’s doing it.”
The median value of the aircraft benefit for CEOs at the 500 largest U.S. companies by revenue increased to $130,108 in 2022, up from $100,000 the previous year, according to Equilar Inc. of Redwood City, California, which collects information on executive pay. In 2019, the median value was $105,705, the company reported.
After Tyson, the Arkansas company executive who had the highest value for using the company aircraft was John David Rainey, an executive vice president at Walmart Inc. and its CFO, a job he started in June 2022. For the Bentonville retailer’s fiscal year that ended Jan. 31, Rainey received $424,200 in value from using the company plane on personal trips.
The only other executive whose personal use of the company aircraft totaled more than $200,000 was M. Brett Biggs, Walmart’s former EVP and CFO. He held the position through June 5, 2022. Biggs’ use of the company jet was valued at $209,396 for the fiscal year that ended in January. That’s a slight dip from the previous year when Biggs’ corporate plane use was valued at $212,236.
Walmart referred Arkansas Business to its proxy statement for comments. In its latest proxy, Walmart said that its named executive officers receive a limited number of benefits, including limited personal use of the company jet. Walmart said it provides the perks to “attract talented executives to our company and to retain our current executives, and we believe their limited cost is outweighed by the benefits to our company.”
Dickerson, the partner at Troutman Pepper, said that company boards appreciate that their CEOs are working 24/7 and that executives’ limited amount of personal plane use “improves their quality of life enough that it actually is good for the company.”
The compensation committee of a company’s board of directors typically decides how much the executives will be able to use the planes, but each company does it differently, Dickerson said.
Shareholders will object to the use of the plane if it’s “significant,” he said. “You won’t see shareholder objections for only a modest amount of use.”
Elson, of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, said the boards should end the practice. “It’s a misuse of shareholder assets,” Elson said. “Shareholders don’t pay for the planes so [executives] can take them on trips.” He said the planes are meant to be used for business purposes.
John Allison, chairman, CEO and president of Home BancShares Inc. of Conway, used pilots employed by the company for personal trips in an airplane owned by his company, Capital Buyers. In 2022, Allison’s personal trips were valued at $6,400.
George Gleason, the chairman and CEO of Bank OZK of Little Rock, has a different approach when using the company jet. He reimbursed Bank OZK for his use of the aircraft, which was valued at $43,820 in 2022. “Because he reimburses the Company, this arrangement is no longer considered a perquisite,” the company said in its proxy filing. Gleason is the only executive authorized for personal use of the bank’s plane.
Dickerson said has seen other companies allow their executives to use the company’s jet, but then reimburse the company for its use. “It is certainly a reasonable approach,” he said. “But it’s a small minority of the companies that do that.”