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America's top-paid young CEOs

August 20, 2008 11:11 IST

Young chief executives are becoming an endangered species.

Since the height of the tech boom in 2000, the number of CEOs aged 45 or younger at the helm of the 500 largest publicly traded US companies has dropped by more than half, to 28 from 60, and just three haven't yet reached their 40th birthdays.

Unsurprisingly, the remaining crop of wunderkinds preside mainly over technology firms, though retail and financial services empires are in the mix, too. And though this group is handsomely paid within their industries, their $9.2 million average annual compensation trails the average for the 500 as a whole, which came in at $12.8 million.

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But that gap may be closing. After swelling 38 per cent in 2006, overall CEO compensation for the top 500 retreated 15 per cent last year, thanks to performance-based compensation packages tied to flagging earnings and share prices. Meanwhile, the 28 youngsters under 45 collectively enjoyed a 5.9 per cent increase in overall compensation.

At the top of the 45-and-under list: Nabeel Gareeb, CEO of chip maker MEMC Electronic Materials . The 43-year-old Gareeb was also the sixth highest-paid CEO overall, earning a total $79.5 million in 2007, the vast majority in company stock. (We're talking cash here, not theoretical paper gains.) His $1.8 million in salary and bonus was shy of the $2.2 million median payout for chiefs in the semiconductor biz.

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Next up: Jen-Hsun Huang, the 45-year-old founder of graphics chip maker Nvidia. He's been running his company for 15 years and pulled in $46 million in total compensation in 2007--most of it, like Gareeb, in company stock he cashed in.

Coming in third is Marc Holliday, chief of SL Green Realty. The only one of the young bunch in the real estate industry, Holliday claimed total compensation of $15.7 million last year.

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Rounding out the double-digit earners, in order, are Jonathan Schwartz, head of Sun Microsystems, with $13.5 million; Shantanu Narayen (Adobe Systems, $12 million); and Michael T. Fries (Liberty Global, $11 million).

Where do these guys come from? Many rise from within--though it takes a lot of time to learn a business inside and out, earn the respect of the board, and perhaps hardest of all, win the hearts of employees.

Excluding four founding entrepreneurs, including 39-year-old Yahoo! chief Jerry Yang and Nvidia's Huang, the 45-and-under set spent an average of nine years climbing the ranks before moving into their corner offices.

"It's more of a high-stakes game than it was in the past," says Alexander Cwirko-Godycki, research manager at Equilar, an executive compensation research firm. "Boards are more risk-averse when choosing CEOs. It makes it harder for young people to be promoted to that level."

Proven leadership experience is ultimately what leads to mega bucks, say compensation experts. The guys on this list are certainly getting their shot. Better yet, they're getting paid.

Matt Kirdahy, Forbes