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Fat Cats Are Curdling the Cream - Time to Regulate Bosses?

10/06/2016 11:52

Are we in a new infuriating phase of the economic cycle, that one where a few individuals shake your faith in corporate life just when everyone has got over austerity?

It certainly feels that way, judging by what we have heard from the heads of retailer Sports Direct and the bankrupt BHS chain recently in evidence to MPs

In order: Mike Ashley of Sports Direct has not always been paying the minimum wage to employees (and helpfully added that he wasn't Santa Claus, either) and Dominic Chappell, the former racing driver, bankrupt and owner of BHS was forced to deny threatening to kill its chief executive as the company went into the abyss.

But let us also not forget the £70 million annual pay shareholders have just voted, amid institutional investor grumbling, to Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder and head of the advertising giant WPP.

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The three men probably don't have a friend in common. But what they do share is creating a poor representation of business life. The moral they teach us is in high, flashing neon lights is a simple one: Executive pay needs better regulating to avoid excess, and so do the people who receive it.

In our complex and interconnected corporate world we rely on directors and shareholders to represent commercial values and avoid crass misjudgements that go on to damage lives or reputations. But that appears to be failing.

I accept that Sir Martin, a formidable talent who built WPP from scratch to be a world beating agency, is the polar opposite to Dominic Chappell, who achieved almost the reverse with BHS. But £70 million a year?

You can love capitalism and still feel queasy when chief executives are awarded salaries that seem to reflect no particular worth, just an ability to get it; or when a boss seems unaware of how much his staff are underpaid; or when a bankrupt with no retail experience is more or less handed a major retailer to run by its former owner.

We may actually have reached a point where senior executive wings need to be clipped before capitalism is brought into serious disrepute; and pay is a good start: Money and remoteness from reality seem to go hand in hand.

In an effort to reconnect them, the Swiss, of all people, narrowly voted in a referendum three years ago against a proposal that chief executive pay should never be more than 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in a firm. (It is 148 times in Switzerland). The fact it was even the subject of a referendum at all is what matters.

Our own MPs should consider something similar, if only to force through some boardroom humility here. There comes a point when flagship companies and high profile individuals have a responsibility beyond their immediate corporate interests, and it seems to be lost.

The best firms and the most striking, regarded business people of our age, such as Sir Richard Branson, do set a moral tone for corporate life. More need to follow that example. It is dismaying otherwise.

As a basic rule of thumb, there is no individual chief executive who can justify a salary of tens of millions of pounds, particularly in a company with individual and institutional shareholders. It makes a mockery of what all businesses actually are, which is the result of shared endeavour and risk.

If workers feel removed from those they work for, their motivation and commitment must suffer. It seems to be a no-brainer. The culture within a business is set by its chief executive, too, so there are no excuses when it goes wrong, just a severe risk that people - shareholders - start to smell rot. Nothing is then more dangerous to a business..

Actually, Santa Claus is coming to town, but as an increasingly active, exasperated shareholder, not a company owner. Let us hope he soon decides rather more forcefully who has been bad or good, and remunerates accordingly.

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