AKRON, OHIO — Magna International Inc. does things big.
Last year's sales of $30.8 billion ranked the auto¬motive supplier No. 370 on Fortune's list of the largest companies in the world, and No. 5 among those based in Canada.
Another thing Magna did big last year was pay its top leaders, including CEO Donald Walker, who at nearly $17 million in total 2012 compensation tops the latest executive compensation survey from Plastics News.
Walker, like all of Magna's top executives, received a rather pedestrian salary of $325,000 last year but his hefty cash bonus of nearly $8.1 million, and stocks and options worth again that much, shot him to the top of the chart. Altogether Magna paid out cash bonuses of roughly $18 million to its five executives in this year's ranking.
A few U.S.-based CEOs also reaped sizable performance-based bonuses: PolyOne Corp.'s Stephen Newlin, $4.1 million; and E.V. Goings of Tupperware Brands Corp. and Shane Fleming of Cytec Industries Inc., $2.8 million apiece.
But folks on the latest plastics industry list are actually bucking a larger national trend, regarding cash bonuses, according to Equilar Inc.'s Aaron Boyd, director of governance research.
"The first thing that stands out is that cash bonuses are up, which is a little bit different from what we've seen from broader trends in pay over the past couple years," said Boyd. His Redwood City, Calif.-based executive compensation data firm compiled the information in PN's executive compensation survey.
"The marketplace, as a whole, has seen cash bonuses actually go down the last couple of years, at least in terms of amount. I think one of the big reasons we saw that is the companies that are on the [Plastics News] list this year saw pretty good returns," Boyd said.
The industry's strong performance, from a stock-price point of view, pushed cash bonus levels higher, he said.
Executives on the list, as a whole, also enjoyed higher equity awards last year compared with the year before. And that does follow a broader trend.
"We're seeing more pay being given in equity as there's really an emphasis by companies to align pay for performance, and pay for long-term performance in particular. So a lot of companies are giving more and more compensation in the form of equity as opposed to cash," Boyd said.
Higher stock prices in recent years also are making those equity awards more valuable.
"The shares that an individual is receiving are worth more and more each year, again, as stock price continues to go up," Boyd said.
Median pay was about $1.3 million last year for the top 150 plastics executives at firms that report that data to the Securities and Exchange Commission. That's up from $906,007 in 2011.
While the Magna CEO's pay ranked at the top of PN's list, Walker's compensation was far from the top of the highest-paid CEOs at publicly traded companies in the U.S.
With compensation of $92.6 million in 2012, Oracle Inc. CEO Larry Ellison headed a list published by the New York Times, which was also compiled by Equilar Inc.
Magna is, by far, the largest North American plastics company on the PN executive pay chart, so it's not surprising that its top people are always among the highest-paid. With more than 100,000 employees, the Aurora, Ontario-based manufacturer of automotive systems, assemblies, modules and components has more than 400 locations in 29 countries on five continents, with more than half of those employees working in the U.S., Canada or Mexico.
"Typically, size is heavily related to the amount of pay," Boyd said. "So if you're an executive at a larger firm, you're typically going to see a higher pay than you will, obviously, at a smaller firm. And then you will have your outliers from smaller companies,"
Calls seeking comment about Magna's approach toward executive pay were not returned.
But parts of the company's executive compensation practices come from a management philosophy that company founder Frank Stronach created and called "Fair Enterprise" — which predetermines how much of the company's profits go to employees, management, investors and society.
That profit-sharing approach is spelled out in the company's corporate constitution, "which allows for base salaries comparable to industry standards, plus incentive bonuses, in total, of up to 6 percent of its profit before tax" for management.
Simply put, that means when things go well for Magna, things go well for Magna leadership.
Any controversy regarding paying top executives large amounts of money is not lost on Walker, who spoke about the issue during a television interview last year.
"I think what has been controversial in the press probably has been more of the corporate constitution.
"The corporate constitution primarily predetermines what we do with our profits," Walker said during an interview with corporate performance consultant Bill Hogg on a Canadian TV show called Let's Talk Leadership.
"So we reinvest in the business. We have profit sharing for our employees. We have profit sharing for senior management. We have social funding as well as funding R&D," he said. "So the controversial part is when you will have some of the senior managers making high amounts of money. Because we've performed well, they get high bonuses.
"While corporate leadership gets rewarded handsomely, Magna also has codified a profit-sharing program for the rest of its employees. The company constitution calls for 10 percent of before-tax profit to be allocated to other eligible employees, and it also requires that not less than 20 percent, on average over three years, of its net after-tax profit goes to shareholders.
Magna devotes a minimum of 7 percent of before-tax profit to research and development and 2 percent before tax to charitable, cultural, educational and political purposes, according to the company.
The company also has what it calls an employee's charter, which spells out its commitments to workers. Included in that charter are sections on job security, safety, fair treatment and "employee equity and profit participation."
"Magna," the charter states, "believes that every employee should share in the financial success of the company."
Walker told Hogg during the TV interview that Magna researches the market to ensure that employees are fairly compensated.
"We'll do surveys to make sure the average of the wages and benefits we are paying people are at least average to the competition and on top of that, people can be making extra money with profit sharing," he said.