Astrazeneca has become the latest blue-chip giant to suffer an investor uprising against pay as a 'shareholder spring' rages in the City.
At the drug maker's annual general meeting, almost 40 per cent of votes were cast against an £18million package handed to boss Pascal Soriot.
Although the pay plans passed, the results brought Astra close to defeat.
At Astrazeneca's annual general meeting, almost 40 per cent of votes were cast against an £18m package handed to boss Pascal Soriot
It was the latest rebuke to a major firm following similar revolts at Rio Tinto, Pearson, BAE Systems and Glencore, prompting talk that a repeat of 2012's shareholder spring is under way.
Soriot, who received £15.4million last year, is one of Britain's top-earning executives but claims he is underpaid compared to the bosses of other big drug makers.
The Frenchman, 61, has won plaudits for leading Astra through a stunning turnaround since taking over in 2012, as well as for rolling out its Covid-19 vaccine at no profit.
But the latest pay rise has divided investors, with some warning it could tarnish the company's image and others only going along with it reluctantly.
Aviva Investors and Standard Life Aberdeen were among those who opposed it, while Jupiter Asset Management pledged its support.
All three shareholder adviser groups – ISS, Glass Lewis and Pirc – urged against the proposals and the Investment Association issued an 'amber-top warning', indicating concern.
Under the changes agreed, the maximum amount Soriot can receive in bonuses has been increased by £2.3million to £11.9million, on top of his £1.3million salary and £267,000 worth of benefits and pension contributions.
Soriot is STILL holed up in Sydney
Pascal Soriot is expected to return to the UK next week after five months in Australia.
The Astrazeneca boss has been running the firm from his home in Sydney since December having travelled there for Christmas.
Bolt hole: Astrazeneca boss Pascal Soriot has been running the firm from his home in Sydney since December having travelled there for Christmas
It means the 61-year-old, who was born in France but is also an Australian citizen having first moved there in 1990, has not stepped foot in his London home or the Cambridge headquarters of the drugs giant since before the rollout of his company’s vaccine started in January.
The firm insists that he was unable to return until next week due to travel restrictions and that Soriot’s ability to manage has not been hampered by having to communicate by video conference or phone.
But some investors say he should have returned to Europe and more publicly defended the firm as its handling of vaccine production came under sustained fire from EU leaders.
His total package can also rise by a further £4.3million if Astra's shares rise 50 per cent, taking his earnings as high as £17.8million.
It marks the second year in a row that his pay has been hiked.
Astra said Soriot was worth the cash, pointing to the 'remarkable turnaround' since he took over, with supporters agreeing the changes to prevent him from being poached.
Soriot had grumbled that he was 'the lowest-paid CEO in the whole industry' after bosses of rival biotech firms earned more, such as Regeneron boss Len Schleifer who bagged nearly £96million last year.
Richard Buxton, of Jupiter Asset Management, said this was why his firm backed Astra, saying: 'If the board feels there is a real risk of losing Pascal... and so they've got to up the ante, then I'm prepared to trust the board.'
Soriot's pay has been a controversial in the past as well, with shareholders revolting against his packages at the company's 2014, 2017 and 2018 annual general meetings.
Lee Wild, head of equity strategy at Interactive Investor, said: 'The numbers are undeniably eye-watering, but Soriot and his team achieved massive global success. That's worth something.
And Soriot's track record at Astra is enviable.' He pointed to Astra becoming a £100billion company last year – overtaking arch-rival Glaxosmithkline – and its takeover of rare disease specialist Alexion Pharmaceuticals for £28billion.
Wild added: 'Losing him could cost them far more than a few million quid a year.'
Astra shares fell 1.1 per cent, or 86p, to 7632p yesterday.