A painting worth £100,000, a £3m house – and then there was the banker who picked up £5.7m. Are directors taking the mickey?

James Moore looks at efforts to clamp down on extravagant perks, pay-offs and farewells

It was quite a retirement present. When Dame Marjorie Scardino stepped down as the chief executive of Pearson, she didn't depart from the publisher of the Financial Times with a gold-plated watch – she left with a £100,000 painting that had hung on the wall of her office.

The painting of lilies by Ivon Hitchens, which the company had originally bought for £12,000 and is now valued at up to £100,000, is actually relatively mild as perks go, when compared to what Malcolm Brinded got when he departed from Shell, the oil major.

When he relocated to the Netherlands, he bought a house for €3.4m (£2.9m). After he quit, he put the house on the market, but no buyers emerged. So Shell bought it for €2.4m – an average of three independent valuations – and then compensated him for the loss in value of the house to the tune of €992,199.

Another controversial perk has been handed to BAE Systems' US chief, Linda Hudson. She enjoys personal use of the corporate jet – at a cost of £66,300 to shareholders last year – on safety grounds. The private plane used by Petrofac's executives has also raised critical comment. It is true that the company operates in far-flung and often dangerous places, making commercial travel impracticable. But leasing the jet from a company owned by the chief executive?

Other more run-of-the-mill perks include the provision of financial and tax advice for senior executives, paid for by their employers, in addition to "tax equalisation" payments, a notable example of which was the £5.7m awarded to the former Barclays boss Bob Diamond upon his move back to the UK when he became group chief executive.

Relocation packages have also raised eyebrows, a notable example being the £800,000 advanced to the former HSBC chief executive Michael Geoghegan when he moved from London to Hong Kong.

So far, the issue of perks, grants, payments, call them what you will, has flown under the radar compared with the issue of overall pay, the relentless rise of which has taken place against a backdrop of recession and poor overall share-price performance.

Perks, though, are increasingly beginning to make waves among the investment community. As one significant shareholder said: "We have noticed this as an issue that needs more engagement from us."

The shareholder is not concerned about use of private jets in certain cases or in relocation packages for executives, arguing that the latter are sometimes necessary to persuade executives to uproot their families. But they are uncomfortable over some of the other issues.

Robert Talbut, chief investment officer of Royal London Asset Management, the investment arm of Britain's biggest mutual insurer, also sees it as an issue: "It is legitimate to ask questions as to whether some of the perks we have seen are the best use of shareholder funds. Where we do see things we feel are inappropriate, we will raise it as part of our engagement."

Guy Jubb, global head of governance and stewardship at Standard Life Investments, said: "Over the last two to three years, we have seen the level of benefits, at certain companies, creeping up. As a result, we are engaging more with companies on this aspect of remuneration."

Pirc, which advises some of Britain's biggest pension funds, makes the point that with remuneration packages continuing to creep up, some of the perks executives enjoy are becoming untenable. "The directors of our biggest companies are already extremely well rewarded, so there is no reason for companies to provide extra perks, directors can pay for them themselves. We will certainly challenge companies where we think they are providing extra perks out of company money," a spokesman said.

That could make for some difficult times for companies as the annual report and AGM season cranks into full gear. While some investors are inclined to pause for breath after last year's string of rebellions, others believe that the work is only half done.

And some of the perks being handed to executives by boards on behalf of shareholders suggest that they might be right. Certainly that is the view of the TUC, which is planning to utilise its voting power along with its biggest members Unison and Unite, to reflect its values.

Frances O'Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: "Last year there was a change in the mood as the 'shareholder spring' saw a fair few pay reports voted down. We hope to see shareholders flexing their muscles again in the coming AGM season.

"The launch of Trade Union Share Owners this week means we will vote against anything at a company AGM that doesn't seem fair and just – with the aim of encouraging a new and more responsible corporate Britain."

Clampdown call: pay system 'broken'

The body representing public-sector pension funds with more than £115bn in assets has described the current system of executive pay as "broken", and called on companies to adopt a radical new approach on remuneration.

The Local Authority Pension Fund Forum (LAPFF) said the steady increase in bosses' rewards despite "flat or negative" performance in many cases "has called into question the current approach adopted by many companies".

It has written to the boards of FTSE 350 firms to say that pay packages are too high, and called on them to adopt measures to address this. These include a clampdown on packages for incoming directors, an end to the use of benchmarks to help set pay, and a more open recruitment process for top bosses.

The LAPFF also wants companies to disclose pay ratios to help address investor and public concern at the widening gap between the boardroom and the shop floor.

It wants remuneration committees to consider setting the total pay of any new incoming executive at a level below that of the outgoing one, to leave room for "modest" rises as they "grow into the job".

It also want to see more jobs publicly advertised.

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