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Shell can be sure of pumping up volume of investor anger

May 23, 2009

Patrick Hosking

Institutional investors have a new bonus quandary to wrestle with: Sir Martin Sorrell’s proposed package of up to $95million is eye-catching for all the wrong reasons.

But first they need to draw a line under the separate pay row at Shell. To recap, the board overrode the formula previously agreed to decide top executive bonuses and exercised their discretion to make an award anyway, even though the management target was missed. Shareholders this week voted 59 per cent against the remuneration report, a resounding vote of no confidence in the board’s remuneration committee.

But the vote was advisory only. The executives have kept their bonuses. The company has agreed to meet shareholders to hear their concerns but committed to nothing more.

This is not good enough. Investors say that Shell needs to make a clearcut and symbolic concession, something to send a message to other boards that they cannot put two fingers up at shareholders in this way.

This is an important test for Shell. As one major institution put it to me yesterday, it begins to look like the oil company is reverting to the bad old days of introspection and being out of touch.

The obvious solution is for Sir Peter Job, chairman of the remuneration committee, to resign. Simply to promise to listen more next time will not be enough to defuse the anger.

Jorma Ollila, Shell’s chairman, should not have allowed the problem to escalate as it has. This was no ambush; he had plenty of warning. He needs to get an immediate grip before relations with shareholders sour any more.

As for Sir Martin and WPP, the advertising agency group is heading for its own row. Institutional investors are cross that, after consultation on the bonus scheme, their criticisms were ignored. The scheme is super-generous, unnecessarily complex and allows WPP executives to qualify for huge bonuses without putting any fresh skin in the game.

Sir Martin and WPP are highly regarded in the City and institutions will look sympathetically on this case. But the mood on boardroom rewards, perhaps because of the public disgust at MPs’ expenses, seems to be hardening by the day.

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