WHSmith abandons £5m shares award for chief exec following backlash

Published on: 6th November 2020

WHSmith told investors it wanted to grant Carl Cowling shares worth more than £4.5m, Sky News has reported. 

The retailer WHSmith has apparently shelved plans to give chief exec Carl Cowling long-term incentive shares worth roughly nine times his £525,000 basic salary in a special one-off award.

Insiders say the award was proposed as a way to aggregate three years-worth of LTIP awards into a single grant. The proposal has reportedly been met with fury from investors unable to reconcile granting such a windfall in the face of the chain’s behaviour during the pandemic, which saw it cut 1,500 jobs, furlough thousands of staff, and raise £165m from shareholders to bolster its balance sheet.

In August, WHSmith started asking landlords for rent decreases as the pandemic continued. When the news broke, landlords told The Sunday Times that WHSmith was using the threat of a CVA as leverage against them to agree favourable terms, or was attempting to make deals on an ad hoc basis, including payment holidays. WHSmith denied the claims.

In a statement issued to Sky News, a spokesman for the chain said: “Over the past two months we have been consulting with shareholders over a proposed new remuneration policy. While most of the shareholders we consulted with have been supportive, others were not in agreement. In light of the current circumstances and the extended lockdown restrictions since we embarked on the consultation, the company has decided not to proceed with the proposal.”

One investor accused WHSmith of being tone deaf to the prevailing mood around executive pay, and said the chairman, Henry Staunton, had ‘failed to apply basic common sense’.


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