Adding up the sacks of gold: Patrick Hosking on the 90 ousted executives whose departures were eased by pounds 43m

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The Independent Online
NINETY sacked senior executives have shared cash pay-offs of pounds 43m over the past 18 months, according to a survey by the Independent on Sunday. Their golden handshakes averaged almost pounds 500,000.

The survey identifies at least five directors who were paid more than pounds 1m in compensation for loss of office, including Ernest Mario, formerly of Glaxo, Bob Horton, sacked by BP, and Philip Green, ousted from Amber Day.

In most cases, the directors or their companies were deemed to be failing in some way, although that was never stated in the resignation statements. Their departures were usually preceded by a collapse in the share price and quiet pressure from institutional investors.

However, some departures had a more innocent explanation. The payment made to Peter Scott, chairman of Aegis, the media buying group, was because it had decided to relocate from London to Paris and he was reluctant to go.

The figures are likely to add fuel to the controversy over severance pay-offs. Some institutional shareholders regard it as scandalous that some executives appear to be rewarded for failure.

The leader of the assault is Alastair Ross Goobey, the chairman of the UK's biggest pension fund, Postel, which owns about 2 per cent of most UK quoted companies. Earlier this month, he attacked long- term rolling contracts, the arrangements that lead to the massive pay-offs.

He commented: 'Your survey demonstrates that it is a substantial question. It raises the question of whether boards had to pay that amount or whether they volunteered to pay that amount. If legally they were not obliged to pay, why did they?'

Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, contrasted the pay-offs with the modest redundancy cheques paid to ordinary workers, who would be lucky to get more than pounds 10,000 or pounds 20,000 at most.

'I think it's outrageous. These are exactly the same top executives who are dismissing staff on minimal redundancy pay. If a company cannot afford to keep on skilled staff, it cannot afford to pay top whack to get rid of dud directors. I am very doubtful that every performance bonus has been earned, but I really don't see the logic of paying such a thumping bonus to people who have failed.'

Some payments quoted in the table understate the full cost to the company. On top of his pounds 785,000 pay-off, Chris Greentree received additional pension and insurance perks worth dollars 2.2m ( pounds 1.4m) when he was sacked by Lasmo, the oil company.

Tate & Lyle offered to allow Stephen Brown to stay for another six months in the pounds 900,000 Kensington house it had earlier bought for him, after he left the company.

Other companies seem embarrassingly prone to big pay- offs. Trafalgar House appears four times in the survey, paying out a total of pounds 2.9m.

The large payments are not always confined to the biggest companies. Amber Day, a pounds 96m turnover business that runs the What Everyone Wants discount chain, paid Mr Green pounds 1.13m. Stephen Hinchcliffe of James Wilkes, the small engineering company, was seen off with a pounds 533,000 payment.

Some recipients go on to other jobs. Laurence Cooklin, who was given a pounds 773,000 pay-off when sacked by Burton Group, the clothing retailer, was taken on by Ratners, the jewellery group, in March to run its UK division, this time on a two-year contract paying pounds 200,000.

The cost of boardroom oustings go further in some cases. Departing directors are sometimes allowed to exercise share options. Then there is the disruption and the cost of headhunters - around pounds 50,000 for senior positions. Replacements often have to be paid a 'golden hello' to lure them in to the stricken company. Jim Maxmin was paid pounds 200,000 upfront, as well as substantial share options and his pounds 250,000 salary, to tempt him to Laura Ashley.

Richard Weir, head of the Institutional Fund Managers' Association, said: 'One has to wonder whether all of them (ousted directors) are justified in having these handsome payments.' He said the general view among his members, although not unanimous, was that too many long-term rolling contracts had been made when they were not justified.

Other fund managers contacted by the Independent on Sunday echoed Mr Ross Goobey's view, but less strongly. None was prepared to be named. One said: 'There should be a more aggressive approach. Some boards don't make enough effort to use mitigating circumstances to reduce the severance payment.

'Is it perhaps part of the British disease? Do boards somehow think it's 'bad form'. I don't remember Robert Maxwell ever making large payments to the people he sacked.'

But he, like others, was keen that the Cadbury guidelines on corporate governance should be given time to work. 'The ink is barely dry on the paper (of Cadbury) and already there is a raging debate again.'

Another fund manager said: 'We are now discussing this internally in order to come up with a view. My private view is that Alastair Ross Goobey is right. This idea of three-year contracts is a nonsense. They should be for 12 months.'

At the centre of the debate are the long-term rolling service agreements common in many large companies. These are usually for three years, although some executives at Burton under Sir Ralph Halpern famously enjoyed five-year contracts.

David Shellard, managing director of Russell Reynolds, the international headhunters, said: 'Three-year rolling contracts are now definitely becoming less common. Nearly everyone now believes they are not a good idea. Two years is probably now the average and it's coming down to one year.'

Although newly recruited executives are rarely given three- year contracts, existing directors are reluctant to give them up, and by their 'rolling' nature they are self-perpetuating. That means the ill-effects will haunt companies for years.

But fury over boardroom pay-offs obscures a more worrying message about the quality of senior executives. According to Peter Grey, managing director of Personal Development Consultants, top managers are often not trained in the necessary leadership skills. If they had those skills - the ability to think strategically, to inspire others, to have vision - they would not need to go.

But bosses too often think the need for coaching stops at the boardroom door. 'A lot of top executives find it difficult to acknowledge that they could benefit from development and learning,' said Mr Grey, whose clients include Shell, WH Smith and Glaxo. 'As a nation, our stock of leaders is not an infinite resource. It's important to make the best use of it.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: HOW THE EXIT PAID OFF ----------------------------------------------------------------- Name Company Position Amount (pounds) Ernest Mario Glaxo chief exec 2.9m* Peter Scott Aegis ch and c/e 2.25m Bob Horton BP chairman 1.5m Philip Green Amber Day ch and c/e 1.13m David Reich Aegis director 1.0m Sir Nigel Broackes Trafalgar House chairman Part 1.9m Sir Eric Parker Trafalgar House chief exec Part 1.9m Stephen Brown Tate & Lyle chief exec 975,000 Chris Greentree Lasmo chief exec 785,000 Stephen Walls Arjo Wiggins chief exec 775,000 Laurence Cooklin Burton Group chief exec 773,000 Don McCrickard TSB chief exec 763,000 Gene Lockhart Midland Bank c/e (UK) 736,000 George Loudon Midland Bank c/e subsid 720,000 * Estimate based on three-year rolling contract, pounds 975,000 salary -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)