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Old Turks covet quirky perks

Lavish, over-the-top lifestyles have always made for good voyeuristic reading. A decade ago there was a fusillade of stories about the excesses of the Sultan of Brunei, but today it’s the corporate sultans who command our attention.

Their perks are eye-openers. Until GE’s Jack Welch got enmeshed in a testy divorce, who knew that his 2001 retirement package totaled $16.1 million and that he also received an $80,000 per month Manhattan apartment along with continued use of the corporate jet. Even incidentals like food, flowers and tickets to sporting events were covered lest Welch run short of change. (Welch has now volunteered to scale it back.)

Retirement, it seems, can prove easily as remunerative as working. IBM’s Louis V. Gerstner Jr., age 60, nailed down $2 million a year, an $8 million bonus and the corporate jet, plus an apartment, a car and expenses for club membership.

Retirement perks in the same league were awarded to the likes of Jacques Nasser of Ford Motor Co. (he’s only 55), Terrence Murray of FleetBoston Financial and Roger Enrico of PepsiCo.

Despite their reputations for high living, executives of showbiz companies are oddly absent from this list. Could it be that Hollywood’s hierarchs have been pursuing a humble lifestyle while the rest of the corporate elite has been living high?

Well, I don’t think so. Indeed, one of the originators of the corporate good life was Steven J. Ross, who re-invented modern-day Warner Bros. Silver-haired and courtly, Ross made his initial fortune from the two most unglamorous businesses — undertaking and parking lots. To Ross, however, handing out perks became an art form, and he was its master. He used it to win the fealty of top stars and filmmakers because he understood that no one, no matter how rich and spoiled, could resist grandiose toys or a private jet headed to glitzy places.

Ross’ cathedral of excess was his hideaway in Acapulco, which he named Villa Eden. What celebrity would want to go to Acapulco, one might ask. No one especially wanted to go — unless, that is, they were invited to Villa Eden, and a sleek Warners jet (the company had a fleet in those days) was standing by to take them there.

Perched atop the Las Brisas resort overlooking Acapulco Bay, the villa was a showstopper. There was an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, an indoor tennis court and an outdoor one, and its luxuriously appointed rooms stretched on and on. There was even a pro shop, enabling the visitor to select his tennis togs, all free of charge. Guests were even encouraged to venture into town and buy anything of their choice — “charge it to the house,” a concierge would advise.

And the stars dropped by — Streisand, Eastwood and Stallone among them. If a hot director was being courted by the studio for a film, he, too, would get an invitation. The studio made sure that a script was placed next to his bed in Acapulco. Stallone even found a script tucked into the seat of his Warners jet.

If some celebrities disdained the trip to Mexico, they were rewarded with a stay at the Warner Bros. chalet in Aspen, Colo., where tickets for the lift were spread around the house. Again, the jets were at the ready for celebrities who suddenly had the urge to get away from it all.

After Ross’ death in 1992, the perq parade was ably presided over by Bob Daly and Terry Semel. They ruled like feudal princes and rewarded themselves and their charges accordingly. While other studio heads like Paramount’s Dolgen-Lansing team dined at the commissary and mixed with the troops, Daly and Semel remained in their sanctum sanctorum, with their own private chef. Their salaries were never publicly disclosed, but both emerged with fortunes in the hundreds of millions. And they sustained the Ross tradition. In one famous instance, they dispensed Range Rovers to actors and filmmakers at the end of a production to reward them for bringing it in on schedule.

The irony of the Ross legacy, of course, was that the ultimate executive rewards were dispensed in the form of stock options. And with the AOL merger, the value of the options disintegrated. Hence, the most generous corporate hierarch ended up with the angriest executive corps.

Jack Welch may be taking heat from the press, but, compared with the AOL Time Warner crowd, he can truly laugh all the way to the bank.

As for Villa Eden, it was recently purchased by another showbiz titan who loves the good life: Haim Saban.

Paradoxically, he’s a corporate titan without a corporation. Steve Ross would have been appalled.

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