A rebellion is brewing in the ranks of shareholders

Chief executives across the Anglo-Saxon corporate world have been gorging themselves in recent years, but has the time come to start snatching away some of the plates?

A rebellion is brewing in the ranks of shareholders

It is possible to recall rather more innocent times when the pay of our business elite was not positioned way up in the stratosphere and when shareholders did not feel like pawns in a great financial game of chess.

Twenty years ago, the annual general meeting at an Irish plc was usually a sleepy enough affair, mainly populated by gentlemen in grey suits and a scattering of retired people.

After the usual formalities had been dealt with, shareholders would form an orderly, fawning queue to meet with the chairman and CEO and touch their hems, basking in the presence of greatness.

There would be occasional complaints about the quality of the biscuits and the hotel coffee.

At the Waterford Crystal AGM, a female shareholder once wondered out loud why those present were not being presented with gifts of crystal. A few hardy dissidents would jump up to raise points of order.

At any hint of rebellion, the Chair could call on great battalions of proxy votes.

Such days seem far away. Since 2008, in particular, chairpersons have endured heckling, a chorus of boos, and even dousing by egg.

Company directors have been on the defensive as never before. Corporate governance experts warn that experienced managers are increasingly reluctant to accept directorships, concerned that they may be placing their heads on a chopping block.

Following recent events, such caution appears justified. Last week, Ornua (the former Irish Dairy Board) unveiled its latest set of figures.

A rise of almost one fifth in annual earnings to just under €60m. Enough to justify the payment of €9m in fees over two years to its nine senior executives?

No, say farmer groups who point to a 40% drop in milk prices that have left many farmers struggling. The controversy coincides with the election of a new Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) president, Joe Healy, almost six months after controversy erupted over the huge salaries paid to that organisation’s top brass, and former CEO, Pat Smith, in particular.

Transparency is sought all round and it has been in short supply at Aryzta (the former IAWS) where CEO Owen Killian, a couple of years back pulled in a €5.5m pay package. The group’s turnover is almost €3.5bn, but the share price dropped in half.

It is slightly up on its March low, but the group is facing calls to be much more forthcoming in its relations with the investment community.

Irish shareholders generally feel put upon, not least the hordes of the faithful in the exploration sector.

Yet Irish executive salaries are modest compared with top pay-outs across the Anglo-American corporate world.

Take Martin Sorrell, who built up WPP, the world’s largest advertising and marketing services group. Mr Sorrell recently collected the second largest package to be ever granted to a CEO of a FTSE 100 Company, one of $63m.

He has defended the payment, pointing to growth in WPP’s market capitalisation of €10bn and a doubling in its share price over the past four years. He sees himself, with some justice, as more global entrepreneur than corporate manager.

Having become a key figure in the advertising firm, Saatchi & Saatchi, which helped mastermind Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory, Mr Sorrell branched out as a venture capitalist, acquiring an obscure manufacturer of shopping baskets, Wire & Plastics Products before transforming it into the huge global services business of today.

Whatever you say about Mr Sorrell, and some less than kind things have been said about him, he is an extraordinary capitalist if perhaps, not the most charming of humans.

You could justify his exercises in personal wealth amassment on the basis that he has created huge value for his shareholders.

But what about Bart Becht who, a few years back, was paid £92m in his capacity as CEO of Reckitt Benckiser. Then there is Philippe Daumas of Viacom who netted $84.5m in 2010. Sly Bailey, boss of Trinity Mirror, earned £14m over a ten-year period when the company’s share price plummeted by 90%.

Between 1998 and 2010, the median total remuneration of London FTSE 100 bosses jumped from £1m to £4.8m.

Since 1990, CEO compensation has risen by 8.5% a year compared with corporate profits growth of just under 3%. Bosses salaries have clearly parted company with reality. So, who is to blame?

Globalisation has certainly brought bumper profits to large groups able to capitalise on open borders and lax tax arrangements, but as the figures above suggest this does not tell the whole story.

Economic liberalisation has been accompanied by the development of new informal cartels consisting of highly connected people who operate lucrative networks.

The political reaction in the form of large votes for populists like Donald Trump is there for all to see, but shareholders too have begun to respond at AGMs. Close to home, Smurfit Kappa felt the force of shareholder annoyance in the early Noughties.

In Britain, in 2012, we witnessed the so-called ‘shareholder spring’, with pay packages being rejected at companies including insurer Aviva and exploration group, Cairn Energy.

Fund managers have begun to respond on behalf of their beneficiaries, but such efforts have been foiled by the arrival of large numbers of overseas investors based in regions such as the Gulf who display far less interest in corporate governance.

Earlier this month, however, rebellion resurfaced when 60% of the shareholders rejected the generous pay package awarded to CEO, Bob Dudley, at a time when the BP share price has been in the wars.

Reforms in the area of plc executive pay were introduced by the then UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, two years ago. Many have questioned the effectiveness of these reforms, but they could be put to the test at a number of upcoming AGMs in the weeks ahead.

Such activities will be watched closely on this side of the Irish Sea, not least because of the close ties between the Dublin and London stock markets, and because of the message that is sent in terms of shareholder rights and social society.

William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this weekend, once wondered out loud about the rotten state of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Well, the rot sure has spread much more widely since then.

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