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Tech, media CEOs dominate highest-paid list in 2019

It may seem like a world away now, but fiscal 2019/20 was a good year for business, stocks and, ultimately, CEO pay.

It was a particularly good year for leaders of technology, media and telecommunications, or TMT, companies. The average total CEO compensation in the U.S. TMT sector topped all other sectors at $26.3 million in 2019, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence. That's about $8 million more than the average paycheck of a financials CEO, the second-best-paid group.

TMT CEOs also dominated the 15 highest-paid top executives in 2019, taking up 10 slots. Only one CEO from the financials space made the list: Blackstone Group Inc. CEO Stephen Schwarzman, who received his salary in cash.

SNL Image

Google pays

Topping the list is Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai, whose total adjusted compensation reached $280.6 million, more than 10x the average in his sector and up nearly 15,000% from 2018. Pichai's 2019 compensation is over 4x the next highest-paid CEO in the tech sector, Intel Corp.'s Robert Swan, and 1,085x the median pay range for the average Alphabet employee.

Pichai, who has headed Google LLC since 2015, saw his paycheck balloon when he also became CEO of holding company Alphabet in 2019, replacing the search giant's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The total cash component of Pichai's salary amounted only to about $4.0 million, a far cry from those of the Blackstone and KKR chiefs, but a time- and performance-based stock package of $276.6 million propelled him to the top.

Alphabet's market capitalization breached the $1 trillion threshold in the first few weeks of Pichai's tenure, making the search giant the fourth U.S. company to do so. Shares in Alphabet have risen nearly 22% so far this year.

Intel's Swan, who became the semiconductor giant's permanent CEO in early 2019, received a total compensation of $66.9 million for that year, the fourth-highest paycheck overall. The 300% rise in Swan's pay was mainly due to equity awards of $61.7 million, but Intel said 98% of its CEO's total direct compensation for 2019 was "at risk" and subject to the company's performance.

Meanwhile, Lisa Su of Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. came in fifth with total adjusted compensation of $58.5 million in 2019, also largely driven by stock grants, reflecting a surge of more than 300% year on year. Su is one of the only women to make it to the top 15 list.

Blockbuster salaries

While tech chiefs took up three of the top five spots, media CEOs were also prominent in the highest-paid list, led by James Dolan of Madison Square Garden Co., which split into Madison Square Garden Sports Corp. and Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp. earlier this year. Dolan, who remains executive chairman of both companies, received a $54.1 million paycheck in 2019, the bulk of which is composed of stock and option awards totaling $49.9 million.

Walt Disney Co.'s Bob Iger, who resigned as CEO this year but remains executive chairman of the media giant, saw his 2019 pay drop more than 30% to $45.6 million. Iger and Fox Corp.'s Lachlan Murdoch agreed earlier this year to take temporary pay cuts to help their companies weather the impact of COVID-19.

Also on the list is Discovery Inc. CEO David Zaslav, who narrowly edged out Iger with a total adjusted salary of $45.8 million.

Netflix Inc.SNL Image

Meanwhile, Sumit Singh of online pet products retailer Chewy Inc. was last year's second-highest-paid CEO, taking home nearly $150 million, up more than 12,000% year on year. Singh, who became Chewy CEO in 2018, earned a base salary of only $1.2 million last year.

The vast majority of his total compensation consisted of $147.3 million in stock grants after Chewy went public in the largest retail IPO in 2019. Shares in Chewy have surged 77% since their June 2019 debut.