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Top 10: Highest Paid Executives and How They Got There

July 25, 2012
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In 2011, the average compensation of S&P 500 executives was $13,375,474, 393 times the average pay of U.S. workers, which was $34,053 for 2011.

NerdWallet’s new Executive Pay Transparency Tool reveals the compensation of the highest paid executive at 500 of America’s largest companies.

Below is a list, compiled from the tool, of the top paid American executives and how they found themselves in such lucrative positions.


10. Philippe Dauman, President and CEO of Viacom Inc.

Philippe Dauman has been CEO of Viacom for the last six years. He began at Yale, and received his J.D. from Columbia University. He then went on to work at Shearman & Sterling, where he became the chief legal counsel to Viacom’s Sumner Redstone. After developing a close relationship with Redstone, Dauman was hired as Viacom’s general counsel and senior vice-president. Dauman left in 2000 to co-found DND Capital Partners, a private equity firm specializing in media and telecommunications. However, he returned to Viacom in 2006 as their President and CEO.



9. Mike Jeffries, CEO and Chairman of Abercrombie & Fitch Co.

Mike Jeffries studied economics at Claremont McKenna before getting his MBA from Columbia University.  He then joined the management-training program at Abraham & Straus, a now-defunct department store. Jeffries’ had trouble finding success; he founded Alcott & Andrews, a brand aimed at women, which went bankrupt. He then took a merchandising job at Paul Harris, which fell into bankruptcy protection soon after he began. However, when Jeffries was hired as the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch in 1992, he managed to turn the company around.  By creating a young, sexy image for the brand, Jeffries managed to create a following around the Abercrombie lifestyle.




8. Ray R. Irani, Executive Chairman of Occidental Petroleum

Ray Irani grew up in Beirut, where he received his bachelor’s in chemistry. He then moved US and completed his PhD at the University of Southern California. Continuing in research, he then worked at the Monsanto Company until 1967, and joined the Shamrock Corporation as their new product developer and director of research. Irani then joined the Olin Corporation, working as their COO before becoming President. Since 1983, Irani was been with Occidental in various executive positions such as CEO, president, and chairman.




7. David M. Zaslav, CEO and President of Discovery Communications Inc.

David Zaslav has been CEO of Discovery since 2007. Zaslav took Discovery public in 2008, and has shown growth in earnings since. Before joining Discovery, he was president of Cable and Domestic TV and New Media Distribution at NBC Universal. Zaslav had joined NBC in 1989, and worked on developing CNBC and MSNBC during his time there. Prior to his work at NBC, he was an attorney with LeBouef, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae. Zaslav received his bachelor’s from State University of New York at Binghamton before graduating with honors from Bostun University School of Law.




6. Ron Johnson, CEO of J.C. Penney Inc.

Ron Johnson worked briefly in accounting after graduating from Stanford in 1980. He then went to Harvard and received his MBA in 1984 before taking a job at a Mervyn’s in California.  Johnson moved up the ranks within Mervyn’s, before joining Target. Within target, he held multiple roles, being responsible for all clothing and home furnishings, before finally becoming the vice president of merchandise. At Target, Johnson worked with architect Michael Graves to change the company’s image to be more chic. He then worked as Apple’s senior vice president of retail, during which time Apple went from having no stores, to over three hundred locations worldwide. Johnson became J.C. Penney’s CEO in 2011.




5. Leslie Moonves, CEO and President of CBS Corporation

Leslie Moonves worked as an actor in New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse after graduating from Bucknell University with a degree in Spanish.  He decided to instead pursue producing television. Moonves began as a development executive for Catalina Productions, before becoming vice president of development for Saul Ilson Productions. He then joined Twentieth Century Fox as vice president of movies and mini-series.  Moonves filled the same position at Lorimar Television, before moving up to the position of president in 1989. From there, he joined CBS as president of entertainment, before being promoted to president and CEO in 1998.




4. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation

Larry Ellison began college at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before dropping out at the end of his second year. He then briefly attended University of Chicago before dropping out and moving to California. Ellison then joined Ampex Corporation, where his main project was creating a large-scale database for the CIA, which was code-named Oracle. In 1977, Ellison founded Software Development Laboratories in partnership with his previous boss, Robert Miner. In 1983, the company was renamed after its flagship product, Oracle. Larry Ellison has been CEO since Oracle was founded, and is now one of the richest men in the world.




3. Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman and Former CEO of Google Inc.

Eric Schmidt joined Google as their CEO in 2001, and dramatically increased the scale of the company. Since 2011, he has stepped down as CEO and focuses more on the external matters of Google as their executive chairman. Before joining Google, Schmidt was the chairman and CEO of Novell, which he joined in 1997 after leaving Sun Microsystems. Schmidt had joined Sun in 1983 as a software manager, and ascended through several positions until he finally became president of Sun Technology Enterprises. Prior to Sun, he worked in research at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Bell Laboratories, and Zilog. Schmidt entered into research after graduating with an electrical engineering degree from Princeton University, as well as a master’s degree and PhD in computer science from UC Berkeley.



2. David Simon, Chairman and CEO of Simon Property Group

David Simon’s father, Melvin Simon, co-founded  Simon Property Group in 1993 with Melvin’s brother, Herbert. Herbert Simon is currently chairman emeritus of the company. David Simon joined Simon Property Group in 1990 as their chief financial officer, and took it public in 1993. Two years later, he was named CEO, and became chairman in 2005.  Simon graduated from Indiana University in 1983 and received his MBA from Columbia University in 1985. Prior to joining Simon Property Group, he worked at First Boston for three years before joining Wasserstein Perella & Co. as vice president. Simon Property Group is currently the largest U.S. publicly traded real estate company.




1. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.

Tim Cook began at Auburn University, where he earned his degree in industrial engineering. He then earned his MBA from Duke University in 1988, where he was a Fuqua Scholar (top 10% of class). Cook joined IBM in 1982 and occupied several positions throughout his twelve years there, most recently as director of North American Fulfillment. After IBM, he worked as the chief operating officer of the reseller division at Intelligent Electronics. In 1997, Cook left to take on the role of vice president of corporate materials for Compaq. Cook came to Apple in 1998 as their senior vice president of worldwide operations. By partnering with external manufacturers and dramatically reducing stockpiled inventory, Cook has played an integral role in making Apple’s profitability. Cook was promoted to chief operating officer 2007, and served three terms as interim CEO between 2004 and 2011 when Steve Jobs had to take sick leave. On August 25, 2011, Tim Cook took over as CEO of Apple.