Buffett: Coke exec compensation plan was excessive

April 23, 2014: 4:22 PM ET

Coca-Cola's controversial executive compensation plan passed at Coke's annual meeting, but without Buffett's help.


FORTUNE -- Warren Buffett called Coca-Cola's (KO) controversial compensation plan excessive, but said he declined to vote against it.

The plan -- which will pay Coke managers generously with shares of the company if they achieve specific performance goals -- passed on Wednesday at Coke's annual meeting, but without Buffett's help. Buffett said he abstained in the vote. Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), Buffett's insurance conglomerate, is one of the largest owners of Coke's stock, with a little over 9% of the company's shares.

The fact that Buffett didn't vote against Coke's plan, though, is noteworthy. Over the years in his annual letters, Buffett has called various stock option plans unfair. In his 1985 annual letter, Buffett called stock options a fundamentally unfair deal for shareholders, "equitable only by accident," and a compensation plan for "managerial Rip Van Winkles looking to take a doze."

In 1994, Buffett called stock options "free lottery tickets."

And in 2006, he said that the only way to change excessive executive compensation was for large shareholders like himself to demand a "fresh" start.

Yet, Buffett's lack of a no vote on Coke's plan is unlikely to achieve that. Coke's plan boosted the number of options granted to top executives by 20%. Coke has countered that those options would only be paid out if the company hits tough performance measures. But by my math, Coke's returns could fall by 10% a year for the next three years, and the company's executives would still be entitled to collect billions under the plan. David Winters, another large Coke shareholder, had pushed for the plan to be rejected and lobbied Buffett to vote against it as well.

"The Coca-Cola Company Board respects Mr. Buffett's philosophical stance on equity-based compensation," Coke said in a statement. "As our largest shareowner, Mr. Buffett is an avid supporter of the Company and its management team, and has been a wonderful counselor through the years. We greatly respect his views and look forward to continuing our productive relationship with him for many years to come."

Speaking after a charity lunch on Wednesday at New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky -- which raised money for the GLIDE foundation, an organization that fights poverty and homelessness in San Francisco -- Buffett said he disagreed with Coke's options plan, but declined to vote against it because he still likes the company and believes in its management. He said he had no plans to sell the stock.

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