AstraZeneca has suffered a substantial shareholder rebellion over proposals to hand its its chief executive Pascal Soriot, bigger bonus awards for the second consecutive year.
Nearly 40%voted against the policy, which could hand him pay and perks of nearly £18m for 2021.
At the company’s annual meeting in Cambridge, the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker managed to win approval for its remuneration policy, which required support from shareholders holding more than 50% of the firm’s stock, but investors owning 39.8% of the shares opposed it.
The potential new payout could take Soriot’s pay to more than £100m since he took over in 2012 – equal to £1m a month since he joined the company. In that time he has completely overhauled the company’s drug portfolio, tripling the share price. The group is now valued at £100bn.
Working with Oxford University, AstraZeneca was one of the first to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, which it is selling at cost price.
Under the company’s long-term plan, Soriot’s share bonus is set to rise from 550% of his £1.3m base salary to 650%, depending on performance targets being hit. AZ will also raise Soriot’s maximum annual bonus to 250% of salary from 200%.
The US investor advisory groups ISS and Glass Lewis, as well as their UK counterpart Pirc, had recommended investors vote against the pay policy, while the UK’s Investment Association issued an “amber top” warning, the second most severe in a traffic light system of alerts about corporate governance. AZ has seen off several shareholder pay revolts over the years.
AZ’s remuneration committee said it had undertaken an in-depth consultation process with its largest shareholders, and recognised that “a meaningful proportion of shareholders” were not able to support the policy.
“The committee will continue to engage and listen to ensure investors’ concerns regarding the approach to executive remuneration are understood,” it said.
“The committee acknowledges that it is unusual to seek approval for a revised remuneration policy at two consecutive AGMs and that remuneration is a sensitive matter during this pandemic period.”
It added: “Our executive directors have demonstrated solid and visionary leadership to steer the company towards delivering another outstanding performance in terms of achieving stretched financial goals, over-delivering pipeline management targets to accelerate innovation, and negotiating new partnerships with great potential.”
It stressed that AZ had not applied for any government funded wage subsidies or furlough arrangements around the world. “Additionally, the company has been a world-leading actor in the pandemic response through its non-profit vaccine initiative and other humanitarian actions.”
The company has pledged to provide its vaccine on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the current pandemic. By contrast, US rivals Pfizer and Moderna have forecast combined revenues of $45bn (£32bn) from their Covid vaccines this year.
But AZ faces court action from the EU in a row over vaccine supplies and the EU has not made any new orders beyond June when the current contract ends. AZ has had to fend off concern about a small number of cases in which its jab has been linked to blood clots.
Pharmaceuticals firms are also coming under mounting pressure to waive patents on vaccines, to increase supply and make them affordable for developing nations.
AZ has 20 manufacturing partners around the world, with which it has shared its Covid-19 vaccine technology. With its partners, which include India’s Serum Institute, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, it has supplied 300m doses so far to 165 countries.
On Tuesday, Global Justice Now, a campaign group, criticised AstraZeneca for not joining the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 technology access pool, which facilitates the sharing of technology for vaccines and treatments.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the AZ headquarters in Cambridge to demand open access to everyone for the Covid vaccine. Heidi Chow, Global Justice Now’s lead pharmaceutical campaigner, said: “This vaccine that was discovered at a public university, by public scientists, based on 20 years of public research, and then tested on members of the public, this should have been the people’s vaccine.”
An AZ spokesperson said the criticism was unfounded: “We agree with the view that the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. AstraZeneca has risen to the challenge of creating a not-for-profit vaccine that is widely available around the world, and we are proud that our vaccine accounts for 98% of all supplies to Covax. We have established 20 supply lines spread across the globe and we have shared the IP [intellectual property] and knowhow with dozens of partners in order to make this a reality.
“In fact, our model is similar to what an open IP model could look like.”
Soriot’s pay at AZ
*potential maximum package