WHSmith faces investor revolt over CEO’s £25,000 pay rise

WHSmith Covid-19 pandemic salary Carl Cowling
The revolt came after increased concerns over the pay rise during the Covid-19 pandemic
// WHSmith has postponed a £25,000 pay rise for its CEO Carl Cowling
// A third of its shareholders have rebelled against its remuneration report
// The retailer said Cowling had been due for the increase since last April, but it will be delayed

WHSmith has delayed a £25,000 pay rise for its chief executive Carl Cowling after a third of its shareholders rebelled against the remuneration report.

The retailer said Cowling had been due for the increase since last April, but it will be “postponed” after investors revolted at its general meeting on Wednesday.

The revolt came after increased concerns over the pay rise during the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: WHSmith Christmas sales recover but continues to burn through £20m a month

Although WHSmith said its pay committee thought Cowling was owed the first salary increase he received last July, it was now unlikely to hand Cowling the money before the end of the financial year in August.

“We acknowledge that a significant minority of shareholders chose not to support this resolution. We will continue to actively engage with shareholders on executive remuneration to ensure their views are fully understood during 2021,” WHSmith said.

The revolt was larger than the 12 per cent of investors who voted against the company’s remuneration report last year due to objections over Cowling’s pension contribution.

The news came after WHSmith appointed a non-executive director. Kal Atwal has been hired from Royal London Asset Management and Admiral Financial Services to join the retailer on February 1.

Atwal is currently the chair of Simply Cook, a tech-enabled meal kit subscription service.

Prior to this, she spent 16 years at BGL Group where her roles included founding managing director of Comparethemarket.com and group director with responsibility for brand-led businesses, group strategy and corporate communications.

“We are delighted to welcome Kal on to the board of WH Smith. With her marketing and digital expertise and entrepreneurial approach to business, Kal will be a valuable member of the board,” WHSmith chairman Henry Staunton said.

On Wednesday, WHSmith reported that its Christmas trading performance was better than expected despite reduced footfall due to Covid-19 restrictions.

In a trading update covering the 20 weeks to 16 January, the book and stationery retailer said total group revenue came in at 59 per cent of 2019 revenue for the period.

While its high street stores delivered revenue at 87 per cent of the same period in 2019, the retailer’s travel business, which operates stores at airports and railways stations, could only achieve 37 per cent of the 2019 level.

The retailer said January has proven to be the worst month out of the last five, with sales falling to 46 per cent of last year’s levels – a decline of more than two-thirds compared to December.

Although trading at its stores in airports and train stations remained weak in December, high street revenues reached 92 per cent of 2019 levels in December.

Meanwhile, WHSmith said it had not experienced any Brexit-related disruption after the transition period ended.

Cowling said: “In our high street business, we worked hard to navigate our way through the evolving Covid restrictions as we approached the Christmas trading period.”

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