It's another dust-up over AstraZeneca's CEO pay, this time focused on his bonus

soriot
Does AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot deserve a big bonus for 2017? Shareholders will weigh in on May 18. (AstraZeneca)

AstraZeneca slashed CEO Pascal Soriot’s total compensation by 34% to £9.4 million ($12.7 million) in 2017, but that pay cut wasn’t deep enough for one influential voice on corporate governance.

The proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) is urging AstraZeneca’s stockholders to vote against the company’s remuneration report. The problem? Soriot’s bonus was 87% of the maximum, despite the fact that AstraZeneca’s operating profit fell 25% to $3.7 billion and its earnings per share dropped 14% to $2.37 last year. The company’s revenue was down 2% to $22.5 billion.

“Since his appointment as group CEO in October 2012, Pascal Soriot has on average received a bonus of up to 82% of maximum,” said ISS in a statement emailed to FiercePharma. “This does indicate the need for the remuneration committee to set more stretching targets within the bonus framework.”

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ISS also expressed concerns that financial targets account for only 40% of AstraZeneca’s bonus awards. At some point, “strategic inputs by the management team need to start translating into financial performance and as such the lack of focus on financial outcomes is cause of concern,” the firm said.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said in a statement emailed to FiercePharma that the company regularly consults with shareholders and responds to their feedback. “We have made changes to our Remuneration Report in response to feedback, including introducing a simplified bonus structure and enhanced disclosure.” He added that the company’s pay policy was supported by 96% of shareholders last year.

The fact is, Soriot’s job hasn’t exactly been easy ever since AstraZeneca lost its $5 billion-a-year cholesterol giant Crestor to generic competition in 2016. The company embarked on a major cost-cutting initiative, aiming to axe $1.1 billion a year from its sales and administrative costs by this year and focus on key pipeline projects.

RELATED: AstraZeneca investors rebel—again—at CEO Pascal Soriot's 68% bonus-pay boost

Soriot’s efforts did pay off for shareholders last year to some extent. The company’s shares were up 27% for the year as it reported better-than-expected sales of key products, including Crestor. It also released five new drugs, including cancer products Imfinzi and Calquence. It was the second-biggest Big Pharma winner on Wall Street, just behind AbbVie.

But some of that share advance was driven by investors’ hopes for Mystic, a key trial of its immuno-oncology drug Imfinzi. Initial results were disappointing: A combo of Imfinzi plus tremelimumab, AstraZeneca’s CTLA-4 inhibitor, was no better than Imfinzi alone or in chemo in holding off lung cancer progression. In March, the company delayed highly anticipated data from the trial on overall survival. That data won’t come until later this year.

RELATED: Busy AstraZeneca posts Q4 beats as executives promise light at the end of the tunnel

The question is, will shareholders be satisfied enough with AstraZeneca’s performance to wave through Soriot’s big bonus at the company’s annual meeting on May 18? The company beat expectations for the fourth quarter, thanks to better-than-expected performance from products like Farxiga for diabetes and Tagrisso for lung cancer. It reported revenues of $5.78 billion, beating the average forecast of $5.52 billion, and EPS of $1.30, which flew past predictions of 80 cents. First-quarter results will be released at the meeting.

Soriot is no stranger to investor revolts. Almost 40% of AstraZeneca’s shareholders voted against his 2016 pay package, which included a 68% raise. They weren’t happy with his 2014 compensation, either. With ISS chiming in this year, AstraZeneca could find itself facing questions about executive pay yet again.