Shareholder dissent over executive pay grows

Shareholder concern over large executive pay packets and bonuses, and the increasing gap between top earners and the low paid has been gathering pace in recent months.

At Marks & Spencer’s annual general meeting last month, a private investor took to the floor to criticise the retailer for its large executive bonuses that overshadowed those paid to staff on the shop floor.

Furthermore, one-in-six shareholders at Tesco’s annual general meeting in June refused to back proposals for a £11.5m cash and share bonus to be paid to chief executive Sir Terry Leahy should the retailer’s new enterprise in the US prove to be a success. Despite this level of dissent, the new business incentive plan was given the green light.

The director general of the CBI, Richard Lambert, last month also warned business leaders that a widening pay gap between top and low earners could result in a backlash, although he admitted this was more pronounced elsewhere in the world than in the UK.

Steve Watson, director of consultancy firm RewardWorks, said that executive pay has always been a discussion point. “The problem is, the numbers are so big that it makes the majority of people think, ‘why do they deserve so much?'” he explained.

He points out that, in reality, there has actually been a tempering of executive pay and that many would argue that the value that executives, such as Tesco’s Sir Terry Leahy, bring to the business makes them an asset “worth every penny”.

Shareholders at J Sainsbury are certainly of this view when it comes to the performance of its directors. An overwhelming 98.7% – probably impressed with the retailer’s recent turnaround – ignored concerns about director’s pay and backed new proposals for the remuneration of executives at the supermarket company’s annual meeting last month.

The size and profit of the large retailers also helps to put generous executive payouts into perspective, said Watson. “To be fair, Marks & Spencer and Tesco are actually producing bonuses for their staff at a fairly unprecedented level,” he added.

However, he admitted that this recent spate of action at annual general meetings reveals that investors are becoming slightly more aggressive in ensuring that executive pay and bonuses do not become blatant giveaways. Simon Garrett, an associate director at pay consultancy Hay Group, explained that in sectors such as retail, wide pay and bonus gaps occur due to the large number of “lowly-skilled people in their general workforce and some part-timers”.

He added that global organisations which tend to employ large numbers of staff working on menial tasks in countries with low costs of living are also likely to display disparities between high and low earners.