By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Tim McLaughlin
BOSTON (Reuters) - As Tiger Woods staged his dramatic comeback at Augusta National Golf Club earlier this year, most of Emerson Electric Co's <EMR.N> fleet of luxury corporate jets swooped in.
Its planes arrived at Georgia's Augusta Regional Airport from all over the United States, flying in from Austin, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, New York and the industrial conglomerate’s hometown of St. Louis, according to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records. By the time Woods sealed his fifth Masters victory on April 14, Emerson pilots had landed 13 times at the airport during the four-day tournament.
Emerson, which is in the vital but unglamorous business of making products such as measurement and control systems used by manufacturing companies, is now taking heat over its ownership of eight aircraft. The fleet consists of seven jets and one helicopter, according to St. Louis County Assessor records.
Hedge fund D.E. Shaw, which owns more than 1% of the company, earlier this month wrote to Emerson's board and spotlighted the "great expense to shareholders" of its corporate jets, seeing them as emblematic of a "bloated structure and expense base." The fund is agitating for big changes at Emerson, including splitting it in two, and is seeking support from other shareholders.
Its case is that Emerson's stock has lagged badly, partly because of elevated costs. Its shares rose 12% in the past five years, a period in which the S&P 500 gained 53%. In the three fiscal years ending in 2016 to 2018, Emerson's selling, general and administrative expenses surged 23% but its net sales rose only 20%.
Soon after D.E. Shaw's campaign became public in a Reuters story on Sept. 27, Emerson announced a review of its operations. Aviation costs will be part of that.
The company, which employed 87,500 people in 2018, declined to answer Reuters' questions about its aircraft. A spokeswoman declined to say who was ferried to Augusta and other destinations, and whether people were being taken to the tournament or were traveling for some other reason. Emerson has a South Carolina facility near Augusta.
The size of the fleet and the number of times Emerson's Chief Executive David Farr uses the planes for personal trips is out of step with most major U.S. companies. Some others have sold their jets, and those retaining them have smaller fleets than Emerson, National Business Aviation Association data show.
A Reuters analysis of FAA records shows that Emerson’s planes have made 260 flights in the past 90 days. This month alone, the jets were tracked in Alaska, California, China and New York. There also have been recent trips to Boston, Minneapolis, New Delhi, Japan and Washington, D.C.
The intensity of the flying, and other details about how Emerson's aviation arm operates, have not been previously reported. The information is gathered from flight and local authority records as well as from interviews with former staff at the operation.
Certainly Emerson executives do need to travel as the company has more than 200 manufacturing sites and more than half its sales are abroad, but it is the way they do it that has sparked questions among investors.
In its annual proxy statement, Emerson says it requires Farr to use the company's aircraft for all his travel, including personal trips, "to promote business efficiency and safety."
This reasoning is challenged by corporate governance expert Jonathan Macey, a Yale Law School professor. Given tight security at most airports that argument "is just balderdash," he said.
Private aviation business experts counter that security is an issue not just for the executive but for the things they may be working on or discussing while traveling. On a private plane “they don’t have to worry about anyone listening in on their business dealings,” said SherpaReport’s Nick Copley, who analyses the private aviation industry.
DOG ON HIS LAP
Luxury jet flying can be a family affair for the CEO.
Photographs posted on the Facebook page of his son Andrew in August 2007 show Farr flying with a small brown dog on his lap. His son and a handful of his son's friends, teenagers at the time, are pictured sitting in a jet's plush chairs eating pastries.
In the fiscal year to September 2018, Emerson estimated Farr's personal jet travel cost it $369,000, according to a filing. It said he reimburses the company for personal trips based on first-class ticket prices, but Emerson does not disclose how much he pays.
The cost was higher than for CEOs at many other manufacturing companies. Michael Roman, the CEO of 3M Co <MMM.N>, whose sales are almost double Emerson's, cost his company $56,743 in personal aircraft use last year.
The fanciest jet in Emerson's fleet is a 2013 Dassault Falcon 7X, which it bought last year for an undisclosed sum. The price tag for the plane, which seats up to 16 and can be equipped with an on-board shower, would be between $25 million and $30 million, according to SherpaReport.com.
Emerson employs enough staff to run a small airline, including pilots, schedulers, hangar security, and at least one summer intern, according to former employees and LinkedIn pages of current employees. Annual costs for operating the fleet are estimated to be $20 million to $25 million, according to Liberty Jet Management’s expense calculator. That excludes costs of buying the planes.
The Augusta trips alone would likely have cost $120,000, Copley estimates.
Expenses include $61,122 Emerson paid in real estate taxes for its hangar, and property taxes of $112,000 for the jets, local tax records show.
Both Emerson's St. Louis headquarters and its corporate retreat some 40 miles (64 km) away in Winfield, Missouri, have helipads.
Photographs posted by Emerson pilots on Facebook show the company's Bell 412 helicopter, identifiable by its tail number, at Winfield. The retreat has a conference center, a tennis court and swimming pool on more than 400 acres, according to the county assessor and real estate records.
Emerson's ties to Augusta, the exclusive golf club, date back to Farr’s predecessor, Charles Knight, who was one of only about 300 members.
Farr is an avid golfer. He told Forbes in March he had "dragged everyone from my wife to friends and Emerson colleagues for a round," in the United States, Ireland and Scotland. Neither Emerson nor the club would comment on whether he belongs to Augusta.
The corporate jet's heyday was in the 1980s when tobacco-to-food conglomerate RJR Nabisco had 10. The book "Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall Of RJR Nabisco" details how one jet was flown across the United States with the CEO's dog as the key passenger.
By 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, attitudes were very different. CEOs of U.S. auto companies were criticized by lawmakers for traveling by corporate jet when they were seeking a bailout from the government.
Even St. Louis beer maker Anheuser-Busch, whose fleet once matched Emerson's, now owns only one jet and one helicopter after the company was acquired by Belgium-based InBev.
Charlie Horton, who worked at Emerson as a flight department maintenance supervisor more than 20 years ago, said Emerson and Anheuser once competed to see who had the best-looking fleet in St. Louis.
"I'd have to say they are the best-maintained aircraft in aviation," Horton said of the Emerson fleet. "It's almost like a scheduled airline."
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Tim McLaughlin in Boston; Editing by Martin Howell and Bill Rigby)