Racing found itself caught up in the shareholder spring when almost half the shareholders of bookmaker William Hill voted against a £1.2m retention bonus for the chief executive Ralph Topping.
In all, 49.9% of proxy votes opposed the deal, and 50.1% supported it. As company chairman Gareth Davis acknowledged, “In bookmakers’ parlance, it was a short head.” The bonus will keep Topping with company until the end of next year, by which time he will have completed 40 years’ service.
He started off as a cashier in a William Hill betting shop close to Hamden Park, and for the past three years has combined his work for Hills with the position of Chairman of the Scottish Premier League.
At William Hill’s AGM yesterday all was pretty straightforward, with the people who had turned up strongly supporting the shares and cash deal for Topping, although at the time those people voted, they had no idea as to how close the overall scores would be. And curiously, the number of shares each had wasn’t actually added in to the proxy votes. A spokesperson for the company claimed that the number of voting rights in the room would not have been enough to overturn the outcome.
This left some shareholders unhappy, with Anthony Lee leading the dissent at the question and answer session that followed the vote. He said, “At last year’s AGM the chief executive said he has never been more excited with the people he is working with and that he loved the business. That was all very encouraging, but I was worried that between four and five weeks later Mr Topping loved the business so much he had to be offered a whacking incentive to stay with the business.”
The short answer to that is Mr Topping turned 60, which meant he could walk away from the company at any time without any loss of pension or benefits.
Whilst there’s no doubt that the procedure followed at yesterday’s AGM followed the letter of the law it still left people feeling disgruntled. Sarah Wilson, of shareholder advisory group Manifest appeared to have borrowed a lexicon of racing terms when she said, “It’s a photo finish and should go to a steward’s enquiry.”
Of course that wouldn’t happen in racing, and it won’t happen in the William Hill boardroom either.