Jack Welch thinks people should stop complaining so much about the vast sums CEOs are paid these days. The former GE chief — who faced his own CEO-compensation scandal when the perks of his retirement package came to light — told a star-struck audience at the 92nd Street Y Thursday night that the current poster boy for plunder, former Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli, a longtime GE exec under Welch, shouldn't be blamed for wanting what his contract said was his. "Bob took a sinking company and put it back together," he said, his wife the writer Suzy Welch, at his side. "But unfortunately Bob believed through his toes that he deserved to be paid what was in his contract, and when the stock market did not reflect earnings, it turned out to be a lightning rod. He didn't change with the times."
So who's really at fault? "The problem with CEOs is that the board screws up the succession plan. The most egregious payment systems come when someone gets fired, and the board has no ascension plan. Then they have to pay for a new star at another company." Welch, who was worth an estimated $1 billion before his 2003 divorce, is no stranger to accusations of overpay. "I was vastly underpaid," he deadpanned. He would, however, like us media types to stop paying attention. "If CEOs continue to be on the front page for every dollar they make, you're going to lose good people to private equity," he says, pointing out the nine-figure incomes of some hedge-fund managers and bankers. "There's just too much grief from the media. It's the same with public servants — do you think public servants are the best and the brightest?" —Arianne Cohen