GE shareholders reject Larry Culp’s $230m pay deal

General Electric shareholders voted against chief executive Larry Culp’s $230m pay package on Tuesday, extending a wave of investor activism over big bonuses at US companies this year.

According to preliminary results, 57.7 per cent of shareholders rejected the industrial conglomerate’s pay packages for its executives.

Investors objected to the fact that Culp’s pay plan was rewritten during the pandemic last year in a way that made it easier for him to earn bonuses. GE’s board extended Culp’s contract and reduced the stock price at which he would earn bonus shares and nearly doubled the amount of stock he would receive.

As the stock market roared back late last year, Culp locked in bonus shares worth $47m and the payout could jump to a maximum of $230m vesting in 2024 at the earliest if he stays with the company.

Last year, the pay awards for GE executives won 73 per cent support from shareholders. After the vote on Tuesday — which was advisory, not binding — GE said it was “disappointed” by the results and that it would continue to engage with shareholders on the issue of pay.

Adding to investor angst at GE, Culp said on Tuesday that the company would not raise its dividend in the near future. “We need to continue to make structural improvements to build a stronger GE before we can increase the dividend,” he said.

Average shareholder support for US executive pay packages has dropped this year to the lowest level since at least 2016, according to Equilar, a pay data company. Five S&P 500 companies have now suffered rejections of their executive pay packages, including IBM and Starbucks, compared to 10 in all of 2020, according to ISS Corporate Solutions.

Typically, investors rubber stamp executive pay, with most plans receiving more than 90 per cent support.

“I don’t think we have ever seen a situation where large and prominent companies like this fail” pay votes, said Matteo Tonello, a managing director at the Conference Board, an international think-tank. Rejections of pay packages typically occur at midsize or small companies, he said, adding that for such large companies to fail bonus votes “is unprecedented”.

More contentious votes are expected this month as shareholders square off with Amazon, ExxonMobil, and others.

Among Russell 3000 companies, the failure rate for pay votes is twice as high as at this point in 2020, according to Semler Brossy, a pay consultancy. The average support for pay “is well below last year’s average”, the firm said in an April 29 report.

Pay plans rewritten during the pandemic to make bonuses easier to earn are among the main reasons why companies are rejecting pay votes this year, said Courtney Yu at Equilar.

“We are definitely going to see a continued trend of more companies getting less than 70 per cent of the vote for this year,” he said.

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