The group that owns Sports Direct has excused its use of zero-hours contracts, calling them “tough decisions that don’t work for everybody”, as it faced an investor rebellion over high pay for its top bosses.
More than half of the independent shareholders in Frasers, which also owns House of Fraser and Evans Cycles, rejected the group’s plans for a £100m bonus scheme for its incoming chief executive, Michael Murray, and the payment of a £100,000 cash bonus and pay rise for its finance director, Chris Wootton.
Frasers sought approval for the bonus schemes at a sparsely attended annual meeting on Wednesday, with only two independent shareholders making it to the 9am event in the group’s head office in Shirebrook, Derbyshire.
However, just over 55% of independent shareholders voted against the group’s future remuneration policy, indicating disapproval of the £100m bonus scheme, while just over 50% voted against the remuneration report, indicating disapproval of last year’s cash bonus for Wootton.
Despite the protest vote, the measures were approved thanks to the backing of the group’s founder and chief executive, Mike Ashley, who owns 64% of Frasers’ shares.
Ashley sat in a smart white shirt at a table in front of the meeting but did not speak, walking out straight after the formal proceedings finished. It later emerged that 26.5% of independent investors had failed to back his reappointment at one of the votes at the meeting, amid concerns over corporate governance at Frasers.
Murray, the fiance of Ashley’s daughter, is intended to take over the running of the retail group next year. Under the new pay policy, he is to receive just over £100m if Frasers’ share price hits £15 for 30 consecutive trading days in the four years from 7 October 2021, up from about £7 at present. The bonus would come on top of his base salary of £1m a year. Wootton could receive up to £9m under the scheme.
The influential advisory groups Pirc and Glass Lewis advised shareholders to vote against the remuneration plan at the annual shareholder meeting, flagging “excessive payouts”, while the proxy voting service Minerva Analytics said shareholders may regard the ultimate payout as “unreasonably high” despite the stretching target set.
Wootton justified paying out large bonuses after accepting £80m in furlough assistance and £97.5m in business rates relief globally last year, saying: “The business rates relief did what it was meant to do and supported loss-making stores, particularly House of Fraser.”
He told the annual shareholder meeting that Frasers had done well to keep open more than 40 of the 59 House of Fraser stores it bought out of administration in 2018 “given how bust that business [was] when we took it over.” He added: “The government support really supported us holding on to that many stores.”
Wootton suggested that zero-hours contracts, which Frasers has introduced for store workers at House of Fraser and Evans in the past year, had helped keep those businesses afloat. “You have to make some tough decisions that don’t work for everybody for the long term benefit of the business,” he said.
Frasers has long used zero-hours contracts – which have been criticised by workers’ rights groups as they offer no guarantee of regular working hours – at its Sports Direct and Flannels outlets and brought them into its newer acquisitions during the pandemic.