WHSmith has been hit by a shareholder revolt over plans to pay a £550,000 bonus to its chief executive Carl Cowling. 

WHSmith sign

WHSmith took £40m in business rates relief in the year to September 2021

More than half of the retailer’s investors either voted against or abstained when asked to back its remuneration report. 

Just over 45% of votes cast at WHSmith’s annual general meeting on Wednesday were not in favour of the retailer’s plans.

WHSmith has been among the biggest retail beneficiaries of business rates relief and furlough support during the coronavirus crisis.

The company, whose growing travel business in airports and train stations has been ravaged by lockdowns, took £40m in business rates relief and £11m in payments through the furlough scheme in the year to September 2021. It also pocketed £20m in business rates relief the previous year. 

Ahead of yesterday’s vote, Cowling, who has led the business since November 2019, was set to receive a bonus of £550,000 – the same as his annual salary in the year to September 2021 – plus pension payments worth £85,000. 

Cowling’s pay will rise to £600,000 from April, with the potential to earn bonuses worth up to £960,000. 

WHSmith said it had no plans to alter its pay award to Cowling despite the outcome of yesterday’s shareholder vote.

A spokesman said: “Despite being among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, WHSmith has emerged in a strong position and anticipates a return to profit in 2022. This is as a result of the hard work of all our people, led by our executive directors.

“The remuneration arrangements published in our annual report and accounts are consistent with the remuneration policy which over 98% of shareholders supported in 2019 and come alongside the award of bonuses to approximately 1,750 colleagues across our stores and head office to recognise their exceptional efforts through the pandemic.”

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