Keep Your Mitts Off My Options, Dear! Hey, enough about fairness. Let's talk about justice. This whole debate about the value of corporate wives ignores just how hard an executive's lot really is.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – This ridiculous Wendt situation has me in a complete swivet. It's featured in this issue, if you want to read about it. Corporate wife receives at least $20 million for 32 years of marriage, contending that the completion of her spousely duties for that time entitles her to fully 50% of not only the marriage's hard assets but also the value of her husband's business career, including a piece of his stock options. His stock options, mind you! This is a disturbing precedent, particularly for people who have stock-option money they want to spend on their second wives.

According to my calculations (I'm not very good at arithmetic; my wife does that kind of low-level stuff for me most of the time), that means Mrs. Wendt has least 700 grand a year for completing the duties of a corporate wife during the course of her marriage.

I don't know. That seems like a lot to me. Not that corporate wives aren't important; of course they are. But 20 million big ones? Honestly!

Think about the differences between what the corporate guy and his wife do every day. In the traditional marriage, the husband is first of all responsible for showering, shaving, dressing (in clothes provided by his wife), and conveying himself to work. This is often anything but pleasant. I sat on a train this morning with a fellow who had hair in his ears and kept saying "buh" in a soft voice while reading a brochure on dog paraphernalia. Is this what I wanted my life to be like? I leave that to you. For a corporate player whose career ends up being worth about $100 million over 25 years or so, the morning commute should probably be evaluated as at least 15% of that, or approximately what--$600,000 per year? That seems fair, if not overly generous.

At the same time, what is the corporate wife doing? While he's getting into the city, she's usually waking the children, who are always so cute and pliable in the morning. Then there's breakfast, making the bag lunches, getting the kids into various layers of clothing, rustling them into the car, and driving them to school. Big deal! Even throwing in a couple of cocker spaniels, total value of these kinds of morning duties over 25 years of marriage couldn't possibly come to more than 20 grand a year.

Somewhat later on, while the corporate husband is sitting in an overheated midtown restaurant eating a $40 breakfast with stultifying marketing types from Oswego or Bratislava, the wife is probably sitting at home with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. What wouldn't you give to be at home with the newspaper, even if there never is any decent breakfast meat in the house? Plus, a lot of big business is done over breakfast, and it's not relaxing in any way. So I guess that portion of the corporate day would be worth in the neighborhood of $187,500 per year. Give or take.

Mrs. Wendt also made a big deal about all the hard stuff that she did all day long. Look, I don't doubt she was tired when the 10 P.M. news hit the air. But come on. Some of the things she mentioned include the making and keeping of doctor's appointments, carpooling with the Pfitzers, writing sympathy notes, acquiring foodstuffs, and other effluvia of daily life. All good things, no question about it, and it isn't easy to create a viable daily life. But wouldn't she have a daily life even if she weren't married to a bigshot corporate executive? Admit it. She would. So let's give her a hundred grand for her effort. But not a penny more!

At the same time, as she putters around the bucolic suburban ecosystem, dropping off the dry cleaning and shopping for tidbits, the beleaguered corporate executive is at his desk, making phone calls that will shape the lives of millions. After those phone calls, he very often goes into a conference room and eats free Danish while making decisions that will shape the lives of millions. Then he goes to a free lunch and talks over very serious issues that will shape the lives of millions. Later in the afternoon, he may be back at his desk again, or even on the road somewhere, having meetings, taking part in conference calls, and eating snacks that will shape the lives of millions. Value of his time: millions! Most people start with one or two, but by the time you get to be really big, you can have more millions than you can shake a stick at. And it's all yours! Yours!

Corporate wives also seem to feel they need big compensation for activities in the social realm. Mrs. Wendt was asked to throw annual New Year's lobster dinners for her husband's department. She also contends that she was required to work the room at vapid social functions, be hypocritical when called to do so, and go on dream trips to China, Egypt, Greece, and other exotic places with bad plumbing so often that after a while it became annoying.

All this was undeniably an important part of the husband's career, and, in fairness, should confer rights to 50% of all monies earned while lobster dinners were hosted, boring people were entertained, rooms were worked, and business hypocrisy was practiced, be it at home or abroad. Value of said actions? I suggest $150,000 per year. I know a lot of people who do it for less.

While his wife was engaged in these important duties, however, the husband was doing things that had nothing to do with her. And was it not in those vineyards that the heavy lifting was done? These include:

--Moving vast sums of money around for no purpose except to generate more of it.

--Firing enough people every year to satisfy the investment banking community.

--Playing golf a real lot.

--Not being afraid to speak when he had nothing to say.

--Taking credit for the good stuff.

--Assigning blame for the bad.

All right. It's true. Except in the case of about 12 guys, those jobs could have been done just as well by any other fungible executive in a suit. But that's beside the point! He's the one who did them. Our guy. Her husband. He gave his life for the business! And what's one life worth? In the case of a successful executive, I believe we have an answer: a lot.

Naturally the spouse wants half at the end of the game, when the poor old fellow is doddering off into the sunset with an attractive young nurse on his arm. And all right, she was there at the beginning and deserves credit for term papers typed, shirts ironed, noses wiped. But 50%! It's fair. But is it just?

I'd say no, except I just asked my wife about it. She says it damn well is, and I always listen to her about stuff like this.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.