At first glance, Nolan D. Archibald might seem like a perfect example for critics of runaway executive pay.

The chief executive of Black & Decker Corp. pulled in a base salary of nearly $1.5 million and a bonus of $3 million last year while implementing the Towson tool maker's strategy of shifting manufacturing jobs overseas and buying up competitors. Throw in use of the corporate jet, stock grants and other long-term incentives, and his total compensation topped $15.6 million.

But in a year when Black & Decker's total return was 81 percent, Archibald's paycheck was 7.3 percent less than it was in 2003.

Among Maryland CEOs who were in their jobs both years, 42 percent received no increase in total compensation last year or a pay cut, a Sun analysis of 86 publicly traded companies shows. The study was based on data compiled by Aon Consulting.

The pay of those near the median rose in the low- to mid-single digits, which was modest given the double-digit percentage pay increases CEOs nationwide received, according to several national surveys.

Meanwhile, shareholders did pretty well. Maryland companies achieved an average collective stock gain of 18 percent last year, twice the gain in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.

Experts say the apparent tempering of executive pay reflects a national trend away from rewarding CEOs just for showing up. Staggered by pressure from powerful shareholder rights groups and the fallout from scandals at Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, company boards are newly motivated to strengthen the link between executive pay and shareholder rewards.

"Shareholders have become more interested and more active, and they've been helped by shareholder advisory groups that 20 years ago nobody heard of," said Peter Kennedy, a senior vice president for Aon and an executive compensation analyst.

Hardly stingy

That's not to say that Maryland directors have become stingy. At least a third of the CEOs in the analysis received pay raises of 43 percent or more, while the pay of average Americans climbed 3 percent to 4 percent.

Bonuses for the richest CEOs also got bigger on average, with 14 companies handing out $1 million or more and nine topping $2 million, the analysis found.

There are still examples of eyebrow-raising paydays, including the options valued at $35.7 million that Coventry Health Care gave incoming CEO Dale B. Wolf, making him Maryland's highest-paid chief executive.

Though his base salary was a relatively modest $525,000, Radio One Inc.'s Alfred C. Liggins III rocketed to No. 2 among Maryland's highest-paid: Options valued at $16.8 million, pushed his total compensation to $17.9 million for the year.

In a nod to shareholders, big stock awards and bonuses increasingly depend on CEOs' meeting specific profit goals or producing shareholder value, and there is evidence that boards are shifting away from stock options ahead of new accounting rules that will require them to be expensed against profits. Often taking the place of stock options are restricted shares that eventually vest and require the executive to meet certain goals.

"There's a lot of pressure on boards," said Steve Harris, a senior executive compensation consultant for Mercer Human Resource Consulting in Atlanta. "I have had several compensation committee chairmen come to my office and spend a whole day in training sessions to understand this stuff."

Big shareholders give the board at Black & Decker credit for tying executive pay to a range of financial measures, from earnings per share to cash flow, among others. The use of multiple benchmarks makes it harder for executives to manipulate earnings to fatten bonuses.

"You could theoretically hide bad numbers in any one of those [measures], but it's awfully hard for an executive to hide poor results in all of them," said Bob Goldsborough, a research analyst for Ariel Capital Management in Chicago, which is Black & Decker's third-largest shareholder with 3.8 million shares.

Progress noted

Shareholder advocacy groups acknowledge that progress has been made, but they aren't ready to declare victory. A review of Securities and Exchange Commission filings shows that many Maryland companies still make it hard to figure out how much their executives are getting in pension and other retirement benefits. In some cases, CEOs still receive lucrative exit packages, lavish perks and huge stock options, despite their waning popularity.