NEW YORK — Steering an apparel company in these tenuous economic times can’t be a barrel of laughs, but at least some leaders are being well-compensated for their efforts, even if their firms aren’t putting in stellar performances.

Levi Strauss & Co. chief executive Phil Marineau vaulted to the top of the U.S. manufacturers’ executive compensation hit parade last year, surpassing prior-year leader Tommy Hilfiger and nearly eclipsing his own firm’s profits.

Thanks to special “leadership shares” designed to compensate Marineau for the loss of stock options when he left the publicly held PepsiCo, Marineau reeled in nearly $25 million in salary and bonuses last year, or just $4,862 less than the struggling jeans maker bagged in full-year profits. Levi’s is privately held but reports earnings and compensation because it has publicly traded bonds.

Marineau, who’s had a rocky tenure at Levi’s helm despite his firm’s celebrated placement of its new Levi’s Signature line in Wal-Mart Stores beginning this fall, received a $22.5 million payout for meeting a performance target on top of his regular $1.3 million bonus and $1.2 million in salary.

To find a substantially higher apparel vendor paycheck than Marineau’s, one needs to look back to 1998, when Linda Wachner, then chairman and ceo of Warnaco Group Inc., earned $104 million — largely as the result of $87.3 million in stock options she exercised that year.

Marineau presided over a leaner operation last year, too, as the firm eliminated more than 20 percent of its international workforce, trimming its payroll to 13,000 worldwide with the elimination of 3,600 jobs. Since 1997 the company has closed 37 factories and laid-off 23,600 workers, as part of a shift towards sourcing from foreign contractors.

“It does seem quite extraordinary that a ceo’s salary was almost equal to earnings,” said Paul Hodgson, senior research associate at the Corporate Library, an independent investment research firm specializing in corporate governance and board effectiveness. However, if the leadership shares are considered a stand-in for stock options, then, he noted “stock options are not exercised every year and create huge peaks and troughs in compensation.”

While eight-figure compensation packages may sound exorbitant, apparel executives are by no means the highest paid group. Last year, industries such as health maintenance organizations and construction firms were the most generous in terms of executive compensation, handing over nine-digit checks to top brass.The average salary of WWD’s top 20 apparel executives in 2002 was $5.4 million, an increase of 295.5 percent over 2001. Excluding Marineau’s more than 4,000 percent raise, average compensation grew 77.4 percent. Not counting the top three earners (who tend to skew the results), average compensation was $2.9 million, which is more reflective of the sample.

Aside from Giorgio Armani, whose net worth is estimated at $1.6 billion, and Gucci’s Tom Ford, who received lucrative stock options worth $29 million when they were issued in 2000, U.S. executives are fairly well-paid compared with their European counterparts. The top two earners on WWD’s 2001 European list were Luxottica’s chairman Luigi Francavilla and his co-ceo Roberto Chemello, who took home $13.8 million and $13.6 million, respectively, including a $13 million bonus each for integrating the Sunglass Hut acquisition. Excluding the Luxottica salaries, which tend to skew the results, the average European salary notched up 0.7 percent to $1.2 million in 2001.

Despite Levi’s 83.5 percent plunge in net income to $25 million on a 2.9 percent dip in sales, Marineau unseated last year’s winner, Tommy Hilfiger, by $2.6 million. Hilfiger’s earnings are for the fiscal year ended in March 2002 as his company has yet to file a proxy statement for the year ended this past March.

To put the win-place combination in perspective, the difference between Marineau’s and Hilfiger’s compensation – $2.61 million - is still about $170,000 more than the total salary of VF Corp. ceo Mackey McDonald, whose pay package ranked 15th on the list. The ceo of $5.1 billion VF Corp. was paid $2.44 million last year. Levi’s did $4.2 billion in sales last year while Hilfiger logged $1.89 billion.

Although Tommy Hilfiger Corp. incurred a net loss of $513.6 million last year — $83.6 million before the effect of an accounting change — that didn’t prevent Hilfiger and ceo Joel Horowitz from grabbing the second and third spots with $22.4 million and $10.7 million, respectively.

Hilfiger’s eight-digit remuneration was secured by an enviable contract tied to top- rather than bottom-line considerations. According to his employment agreement, Hilfiger gets a base salary of $900,000, and although he takes no bonus, he does receive 1.5 percent of the net sales of Tommy Hilfiger USA and its subsidiaries after those businesses attain $48.3 million in revenues.“Sales targets are not atypical but over a longer term you need to have a more sophisticated target than just sales,” said Hodgson.

Horowitz, for his part, receives a performance-based bonus equal to 5 percent of the firm’s operating profits. So take the company’s half-billion-dollar loss, subtract the interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization and any special charges that helped to create it, and Horowitz’s 2002 bonus came to $10.1 million. Still, Hilfiger and Horowitz were among the compensation decliners last year, with their total packages falling 10 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Referring to Horowitz’ package, Hodgson said the number of companies bestowing a percentage of operating earnings on executives is fairly small. “Even for a pool of five executives, 5 percent is high,” he said. “That’s distributing a lot of income to one person.”

Women are conspicuously missing from the list. While the lack of women in the apparel manufacturing industry isn’t any different than the dearth of women on the S&P 500, it’s ironic that an industry so closely associated with women has so few leading the charge. More female ceos can be found on the retail side of the fashion industry, where Christina Johnson is president and ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises; Dorrit Bern, chairman, president and ceo of Charming Shoppes, and Vanessa Castagna, chairman and ceo of J.C. Penney stores.

Then there’s Ralph Lauren, who finished fourth, and whose total reenumeration for the year ended March 30, 2002 suffered, falling 31 percent to $4.5 million even as the company’s net earnings rose 1 percent to $174.2 million in the more recent year. He did, however, also receive an additional $3.2 million in compensation that included company-paid split-dollar life insurance premiums for himself and his wife.

All that aside, Lauren is among the executives who give shareholders the most bang for the buck. His salary was just 2.6 percent of the firm’s net income in the more recent year.

The most efficiently paid manager by far was Nike Inc.’s ceo, Phil Knight, whose salary and bonus of $2.7 million amounted to just 0.4 percent of the firm’s net income. Nike made $633.3 million in profits on $9.89 billion in sales last year.

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