Unilever at risk of shareholder revolt over executive pay

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Unilever is at risk of a shareholder revolt over executive pay after a red flag was raised on the consumer goods giant’s remuneration report.

The Investment Association confirmed on Friday that its Institutional Voting Information Service (IVIS) had put a “red top” on the company’s pay report – which is meant to highlight areas of concern and reflect any breaches of best practice.

The IA declined to comment further.

IVIS – which is a paid subscription service – provides independent information on listed companies and while it does not provide voting recommendations it uses a colour top of either blue, amber or red to bring attention to matters of interest.

It comes just weeks before Unilever’s annual general meeting (AGM) in London on May 2 where shareholders will have the chance to cast a vote on the remuneration report.

While the report vote will only be advisory – meaning it will not trigger any action by Unilever – a shareholder backlash would likely create embarrassment for executives including Paul Polman who saw his pay package surge by 51% to 11.6 million euro (£10.3 million) in 2017.

Mr Polman’s mammoth 2017 pay deal includes a 1.15 million euro (£1 million) annual salary, 2.3 million euro (£2 million) annual bonus and 7.2 million euro (£6.4 million) in long-term bonus scheme shares, according to the group’s annual report.

Sky News, which first reported the story, cited sources saying that IVIS’ red top was targeted at the annual bonuses doled out to Mr Polman and chief financial officer Graeme Pitkethly, totalling 2.3 million euro (£2 million) and 1.1 million euro (£953,000), respectively.

In its annual report, the consumer goods giant’s remuneration committee said that when determining the annual bonus for Mr Polman it had “considered his leadership and very strong personal performance”.

“This consistency of performance is a key hallmark of his leadership and it has now been firmly established over the nine years since he became CEO.

“The quality of the performance in 2017 matched the strength of the results with broad-based growth across all retained Categories and strong levels of brand support and investment,” it added.

Similar comments were made to support Mr Pitkethly’s bonus, adding that he had helped hit record savings and deliver on “capital allocation, services delivery, technology investment and performance management.”

Going forward, Unilever plans to hike its chief executive’s total fixed pay, including salary and benefits, by 5% to £1.45 million in 2018 under a pay review that could also hand him up to 11.2 million euro (£9.9 million) in bonuses and shares a year.

This would mark a 23% rise in the current maximum potential for bonuses.

Unilever last month announced it had chosen Rotterdam over London as its new legal headquarters, sparking a backlash by top 10  shareholder Columbia Threadneedle over a lack of engagement regarding its decision.

Unilever’s board, headed by chief executive Paul Polman, has recommended shareholders vote in favour of the move, which will see Rotterdam become the firm’s primary legal base and headquarters.

That vote will take place later in the year at a separate extraordinary meeting.

But the decision has raised questions over whether it can retain its premium and FTSE 100 listing following the relocation, despite Unilever stating its intention to do so.

The announcement was also a major blow to the UK Government as it tries to uphold Britain’s status as a centre for business after Brexit.

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