That was still only a third of the pay of Brady Dougan, CEO of Credit Suisse, with a market capitalization well below Nordea’s, and then only after Dougan took a more than 50 percent pay cut as the bank’s earnings and share price fell.
A long history of egalitarian Social Democratic rule and a dose of “Jante Law,” a term coined by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in 1933 to signify group behavior that treats individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate, have left a legacy.
“If Dutchmen or a German calls, the first question I get is ‘what is the salary?” Rikard Soderberg at headhunting firm Alumni AB said.
For Swedes, the discussion is different.
“The person I talk to nearly always cringes in discomfort. You just don’t talk about salary in Sweden. It is taboo,” Soderberg said.
The model of relatively modest salaries can present problems when Nordic firms look abroad for talent.
“If I compare with the Anglo-Saxon countries and Germany, Swedish levels are definitely lower,” said Bo Annvik, chief executive at Haldex, a Swedish automotive supplier with production in Europe, North and South America, and Asia.
“I wouldn’t say it is a huge problem, but what might happen is that you look less at German or US managers on account of this and instead look in other countries so as to keep the [wage] levels down a bit,” Annvik added.
Some Nordic executives develop a taste for higher pay when posted abroad and that can become a problem.
“If we want to broaden people’s knowledge by letting them work in different places, most firms have a policy of setting competitive wages in the places they come to,” said Mikael Norman, chief financial officer at Sweden’s Nobia, Europe’s biggest kitchen maker. This can result in huge wage increases when moving from Sweden to Britain and make it difficult to come back. This is a distortion and makes mobility harder to accomplish.”
Still, trends from elsewhere have crept into Sweden, ruled by a center-right government since 2006.
Annika Elias, head of the Swedish managers’ union Ledarnas and president of the pan-European managers federation, CEC, said the traditional view that wage differences were a social evil was losing ground.
“We are seeing a strong change right now, whereby it is now acceptable to discuss the idea that salary should reflect people’s own contribution,” she said, in contrast to earlier views that pay should be more level across an organization.
Sweden has seen the steepest increase in inequality over 15 years in the OECD, data showed last year, even though it remains on average more equal than other countries.
Swedish Trade Union Confederation data show that average income for top executives had risen to 46 times the mean industrial wage in 2010, from a low of nine times in 1980.
The Nordic region has also had its pay scandals.
Financial group Skandia was rocked by revelations of huge bonuses to executives more than a decade ago, while telecommunications group Ericsson faced shareholder protests in 2007.
In Denmark, state-owned DONG Energy last year fired its top executive for being too generous to key staff.
Nevertheless, the Nordic region remains a place where top dogs appear content to forgo the bigger payouts abroad.
“Why would I leave?” said Jan Hammer, chief executive of Norwegian shipping firm Odfjell. “I love Norway.”