WeWork founder and former CEO Adam Neumann drove his coworking company’s valuation to a whopping $47 billion by selling investors on his personality and the idea that he was revolutionizing real estate through tech. He also steered the company — through a series of poor and avoidable decisions — into near oblivion. Now the company’s biggest investor, Softbank, is paying him $1.7 billion to leave the company and most of his stock behind.
That means, as Recode’sPivotpodcast co-host Scott Galloway pointed out, Neumann is getting about $850,000 for each of the 2,000 employees WeWork is expected to lay off — it just hasn’t done so yet because of it couldn’t afford the severance.
Screwing up never felt so good.
“I’ve never seen such a massive consulting fee for someone who is walking away,” Evan Epstein, founder of the corporate governance firm Pacifica Global, told Recode, referring to tech startups. “It’s extraordinary that he walks away with billions of dollars in a situation where maybe the company is imploding and it’s losing value at the rate it is.”
About a billion dollars of that payout goes toward buying out Neumann’s stock, which like other WeWork employees, he’s free to sell (though it’s unclear how much the stock is really worth). Also questionable: Softbank issuing him a $500 million credit line to help him repay loans he has due to JP Morgan Chase. On top of all that, Softbank is paying him a $185 million consulting fee. That of course raises the question: Why pay someone to consult who has grossly mismanaged a company in the first place?
“They’re trying to make it attractive for him to leave the company,” Council of Institutional Investors deputy director Amy Borrus told Recode. “When the founder-CEO has voting control, sometimes you have to bend over backwards.”
Neumann got his outsize power over WeWork in the first place because investors like Softbank were willing to grant it.
“There’s so much private money chasing founders with promising startups,” Borrus said. “Founders are in the driver’s seat, or have been. They can demand and get super-voting stock that guarantees them control of their company even if they don’t have equity control.”
CEO pay has ballooned in recent years, thanks in part to increased corporate buybacks, but even with that in mind, experts say Neumann’s enormous exit package is not normal. Indeed, a consulting fee is usually reserved for a hallowed CEO whose institutional wisdom will be necessary and who’s left a company on a good note.
WeWork didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.
For now, it doesn’t seem likely we’ll see more instances of giant payouts like these.
“I hope that this is an isolated situation that will serve as a cautionary tale rather than a trend,” Minow said.