If You Shop at Costco, Do You Think the CEO Is Worth 336 Times More Than the Average Worker?

Costco's CEO compensation soars to $16.8 million in 2023, but was he worth it?
Updated Jan. 3, 2024
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In the world of corporate leadership, the compensation of chief executives often serves as a barometer for the broader issues of income inequality and corporate responsibility. In the spotlight this time is Craig Jelinek, the outgoing CEO of Costco, whose final year at the helm saw a substantial increase in compensation, prompting questions about the justification of such soaring figures.

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How the CEO’s pay stacks up to his employees

According to SEC filings, Jelinek's total compensation in 2023 reached a staggering $16.8 million, marking a nearly 70% increase from the previous year. The breakdown of this figure reveals a base salary of $1.1 million, augmented by stock awards of almost $15 million and additional compensation. As the 71-year-old executive prepares to hand over the reins, the financial trajectory of his final year raises eyebrows and sparks a broader conversation about the widening gap between executive pay and that of the average worker.

In comparison to the median compensation of Costco's 289,000 employees, which stood at $50,202 in annual wages and benefits, Jelinek's pay ratio comes in at a staggering 336 times that of the median worker. This represents a notable escalation from the previous year's ratio of 218, underscoring a trend that has become increasingly common in the corporate landscape. The disparity between executive compensation and the earnings of the average employee has long been a contentious issue, and Jelinek's final payout only adds fuel to the ongoing debate.

The median worker at Costco did experience a considerable raise compared to the prior year, with compensation rising from $45,450 to $50,202. This leaves many workers needing to earn more money elsewhere just to get by. While this increase is certainly noteworthy, it pales in comparison to the meteoric rise in the CEO's earnings. The pivotal question arises: are the Costco membership perks worth such a dramatic surge in executive pay justified, especially when compared to the modest gains of the average worker?

How other CEOs compare

To put Jelinek's compensation in context, it's essential to compare it to his counterparts in other major retail corporations. Doug McMillon of Walmart and Brian Cornell of Target earned $25.3 million and $17.6 million, respectively, in the same period. While Jelinek's compensation falls below these figures, the broader issue remains—the widening chasm between executive pay and its workforce still looking for ways to make a paycheck stretch a bit further.

Costco, to present a more accurate reflection of its compensation landscape, voluntarily provides a supplemental calculation that includes only full-time employees, who constitute approximately 60% of its workforce. According to this calculation, the median compensation among full-time employees is $66,783. While this figure represents a higher median, the underlying concern remains—the pay ratio between executives and the average worker remains disproportionately high.

As Jelinek prepares to retire on January 1, passing the baton to Ron Vachris, who will assume the role of CEO, attention turns to whether the new leadership will address the issue of executive compensation. Vachris, a veteran within the company who started as a forklift driver over four decades ago, is set to earn a total compensation package of $11.5 million. While this figure is notably lower than Jelinek's, it raises the broader question of whether a recalibration of executive pay is on the horizon at Costco.

Jelinek’s contributions

In parting, it's worth reflecting on Jelinek's tenure at the helm of Costco. The CEO, only the second in the company's 40-year history, navigated the retail giant through significant milestones. His contributions include steering the company's course in the highly competitive retail landscape, overseeing its growth, and maintaining a commitment to fair compensation for employees.

Bottom line

As Jelinek steps down from his role, the spotlight remains on the broader issues of CEO pay, income inequality, and corporate responsibility. As the conversation continues, the words of wisdom from Jelinek may resonate—offering insights into a complex and evolving landscape where the future of executive compensation and its impact on the workforce remain pivotal points of discussion.

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