AstraZeneca could be forced to rip up plans to boost the pay of its chief executive, Pascal Soriot, as investors prepare to vote on proposals that could take his remuneration after nearly a decade at the helm of the pharmaceutical company past £100m.
A host of shareholder advisory groups and fund managers have lined up to oppose a pay-and-perks plan with a maximum value of £17.8m for 2021. If investors holding more than 50% of the company’s stock vote against the proposals at its annual meeting on Tuesday, AstraZeneca will be forced to redraw the scheme.
A bruising pay revolt would create a fresh headache for Soriot after a tumultuous year. The £101bn Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company, working in tandem with Oxford University, was one of the first to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, which it is selling at cost price.
But it faces a legal challenge from the EU in a row over supply and has also had to fend off concern about a small number of cases in which its jab has been linked to blood clots. Pharmaceuticals firms are also coming under increased pressure to waive patents on vaccines, to make them affordable for developing nations.
Now investors could derail plans to maximise the incentives on offer to retain Soriot, who has navigated the company’s course through the plaudits and brickbats that have come its way during the pandemic.
The Investment Association on Monday became the latest City shareholders’ group to put the company on notice of a potential revolt over its pay proposals. It issued an “amber top” warning, the second most severe in a traffic light system of alerts about corporate governance.
The US investor advisory groups ISS and Glass Lewis, as well as their UK counterpart Pirc, have all recommended that investors vote against the pay policy.
Thousands of investment funds cast their votes based on the advice of such groups. Among institutional investors that take such decisions independently, Aviva Investors and Aberdeen Standard Life have both indicated they plan to vote against Soriot’s pay deal.
Luke Hildyard, the director of the High Pay Centre thinktank, said: “The vaccine rollout exemplifies why it’s wrong for individual CEOs to make such gross amounts of money from projects or organisations that require huge collective efforts. The contribution of public funding, teams of dedicated scientists and the army of workers across the world are all critical to getting medication to the people who need it.
“It’s not just unfair for executives to reap all the benefits, but dangerous. Vast pay awards linked to the share price or profitability of pharmaceuticals companies like AstraZeneca create a potential conflict of interest with their far more important responsibility to protect health and cure disease.”
However, some fund managers told weekend newspapers that the company should do anything it can to ensure Soriot’s loyalty.
In 2012, the year Soriot joined AstraZeneca as chief executive, the company could simply have ignored a revolt against its remuneration plans, although it would have had to contend with angry investors. But reforms pioneered by the former business secretary Vince Cable mean that shareholders’ opinion on future pay plans is legally binding, meaning the company will have to revise its plans if more than 50% of votes go against it.
Soriot has earned approximately £86m during his tenure at the helm of AstraZeneca, which has largely been seen as a success, marked by his defence against a £69bn bid from Pfizer. AstraZeneca is now worth £101bn.
Under plans detailed in the company’s annual report, his basic pay is due to increase from £1.289m to £1.327m, while his variable share-based award will rise from 550% of basic pay to 650%, signalling a payout worth up to £6.5m. His maximum cash bonus is slated to rise from 200% of salary to 250%, adding a further £3.3m.
Once pension contributions, benefits and potential rises in the company’s share prices are factored in, AstraZeneca said his 2021 deal would hit £17.8m. A payout on that scale would take his total earnings since taking over as chief executive to nearly £104m.