An income from the in-crowd

Does the old-boy network run executive salaries? Dan Gledhill reports on the 'business paymasters'
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The Independent Online
f British business has a paymaster-general then it may be Sir Michael Angus. The 69-year-old sits on the remuneration committees of four blue-chip companies, helping to decide whether directors deserve to be paid a seven-figure retainer or if a mere six digits will have to do.

This position puts him at the centre of an old-boy network whose influence over executive pay extends way beyond the four groups which retain him.

So says Labour Research, an independent lobby group which has studied the remuneration committees that have spawned "fat cat" directors.

The role of these arbiters of directorial pay will come under scrutiny this week when Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, unveils a consultation document which is expected to call for shareholders to be given more say in directors' pay.

Mr Byers' intervention comes in the wake of continuing public revulsion at the way company chiefs seem to be ignoring the pay restraint urged upon the rest of the workforce.

Top executives of FT-SE 100 companies enjoyed pay rises of almost 15 per cent last year, compared to earnings growth for the rest of the economy of less than 5 per cent, according to Labour Research.

Among last year's best-rewarded executives were Larry Fish of Royal Bank of Scotland, who pocketed pounds 3.3m, and SmithKline Beecham's Jan Leschly, whose pounds 1.919m package is dwarfed by his mammoth share option package, worth more than pounds 81m.

Mention of an old-boy network suggests the existence of a clique of businessmen bent on preserving these supplies of cream for their fat-cat friends without outside intervention.

Neil Mouster of Labour Research says: "There must be a bit of inter-boardroom bragging about who pays what."

Alan Macdougall, managing director of Pirc, the corporate governance consultancy, fears that those who decide pay are too close to the beneficiaries.

"Our concerns about committees is that they are not made up of enough independent non-executives," he says.

Pirc believes that the reports of remuneration committees should be put before shareholders for final approval. Directors' pay should be an important topic of debate at annual general meetings, it suggests.

Pirc's views are echoed by Mr Byers but he has no desire to introduce an incomes policy for directors. Only last week, he declared the need for world-class British companies to pay world-class salaries.

Luke Johnson, who made a fortune popularising Pizza Express, criticises the bureaucracy which dictates boardroom pay.

"The stated corporate governance functions are not a recipe for good management or share price performance," he says. "Committees are stuffed with box-tickers when you need people with actual entrepreneurial experience. It's getting harder and harder to find talented non-execs because they have a lot to lose and not much to gain."

Richard Branson is another wildly successful businessman who feels inhibited by the constraints of the City. Mr Branson, who has turned down a number of non-executive directorships, feels that the system has undermined Britain's competitiveness.

The most recent example of an entrepreneur who kicked against the system involved Sir Michael in his capacity as chairman of Whitbread.

When Allied Domecq decided to sell its 3,600 pubs, it hatched an apparently waterproof deal to sell them to Whitbread. Hugh Osmond, managing director of privately owned Punch Taverns, felt that the agreed pounds 2.3bn price of the pubs owed more to the close ties between the two companies than the interests of Allied's shareholders. He now looks set to prevail with a pounds 2.7bn bid in what may not be the last example of an upstart entrepreneur subverting the old-boy network.


... And their directorships

n Sir Michael Angus (69): Boots, British Airways, NatWest, Whitbread.

n Sir John Banham (58): Amvescap, Kingfisher, Tarmac.

n Sir Ralph Robins (66): Cable & Wireless, Marks & Spencer, Rolls-Royce, Standard Chartered.

n Sir Michael Perry (65): Bass, Centrica, Marks & Spencer.