Exec-pay brouhaha intensifies with thumbs-down shareholder vote at Actelion

They're not exactly carrying pitchforks and torches, but some activist shareholders are demanding satisfaction on executive pay. Swiss drugmaker Actelion was swept up in the tide of protest today as 60% of shareholders rejected its pay plans for 2012. CEO and founder Jean-Paul Clozel had been awarded about $5.6 million in compensation for last year.

Actelion had already tweaked its compensation scheme to quell criticism, Reuters reports. After all, last year's pay vote came in at only 55% in favor. Still, advisory groups Ethos, Actares and ISS urged shareholders to reject the latest compensation scheme--and they did.

Fellow Swiss drugmaker Novartis ($NVS) has had its share of trouble with executive pay. Novartis shareholders rebuked the company for its behind-the-scenes non-compete agreement with outgoing Chairman Daniel Vasella, set at about $78 million. The board and Vasella backed away from that deal, but the damage was done; shareholders staged elaborate protests at the annual meeting, and at the same time, Swiss voters approved legal restrictions on executive compensation.

The Swiss dust-up isn't an isolated occurence, either. AstraZeneca ($AZN) shareholders are calling out the "golden hello" for new CEO Pascal Soriot, who's collecting £4 million in cash and shares to compensate for bonus pay he gave up when he jumped ship at Roche. A shareholder lawsuit accused Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) of overpaying former CEO Bill Weldon. More recently, some determined shareholders persuaded Big Pharma players to set up tougher clawback provisions to make sure CEOs associated with company misbehavior can suffer financially.

And a new report from a Bloomberg Industries analyst offers more fuel for the critics' fire, particularly in the U.S. The median pay among pharma's biggest companies in the States tops $17 million. In Europe, it was $9.3 million, Bloomberg reports. As an industry, however, executive pay among large-cap companies falls short of the median for industrials. Large pharmas sported a median pay grade of $13.7 million, compared with $21.9 million for the larger group.

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