June 15, 2021

Whitbread in firing line over executive pay packages during pandemic

June 11, 2021

Whitbread, the owner of the Premier Inn hotel chain, faces an investor backlash next week after carrying over executive bonuses accrued during the pandemic despite axing jobs and using state funds to furlough employees.

Sky News has learnt that one of the City's most influential voting services, IVIS, has red-topped Whitbread's remuneration report ahead of its annual meeting next Thursday.

The vote will be advisory rather than binding, but nevertheless risks adding one of Britain's biggest leisure companies to an expanding roll-call of companies which have been targeted by shareholders over executive payouts agreed during the COVID-19 crisis.

In Whitbread's case, its board has taken an unusual approach to rewarding chief executive Alison Brittain and her senior colleagues.

While the company decided that she had earned part of her annual bonus entitlement for 2020-21, its remuneration committee decided not to pay them this year but delay them by 12 months depending upon its performance.

Glass Lewis and Pirc, which also advise shareholders on AGM voting, have recommended that Whitbread's shareholders approve the remuneration report.

One shareholder said the board had "struck the right balance" between withholding variable pay for a year in which the company had received substantial government support and incentivising management to outperform rivals during the economic recovery.

Institutional Shareholder Services, the other main adviser, has taken the unusual position of abstaining, warning that while no bonus payments have been made in FY2020/21, there is the "potential for further voting sanctions to be applied should the FY2020/21 bonus awards be paid [next year]".

IVIS, which is run by the Investment Association, has informed investors that they "will have to be satisfied that it is appropriate given the company's financial performance and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic - the company used the government help, raised capital and suspended dividend payments".

This week, the supermarket chain Wm Morrison saw the biggest City backlash so far of this voting season, with 70% of investors failing to back its remuneration report.

A Whitbread spokesperson said: "The Committee has determined that no incentive payments will be made in 2021 to the executive directors in relation to the 2020/21 financial year, alongside voluntary pay reductions.

"Part of the incentive scheme that would have otherwise been paid this year is being deferred to FY 22 and fully contingent on meeting new stretching performance targets that have been designed to drive the recovery of the business out of the pandemic and support the long-term interests for stakeholders."

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