There's still work to be done to prioritise customers over shareholders

Headlines at the end of the summer showed that chief executive pay has taken a tumble, with investors claiming victory in their efforts to hold companies to account on their approach to pay. With salaries still dwarfing the pay of the average worker, however, and the High Pay Centre think tank stating that more needs to be done "to give the public confidence that our biggest businesses are working for the good of the economy as a whole rather than the enrichment of a few", it would appear that the work of remuneration committees is far from over.

Our summer 2019 Boardroom Bellwether report shows that remuneration committees are in fact working hard to meet investors' expectations. Over half of respondents (55%) have made changes to a remuneration policy following feedback from investors. Of more interest perhaps is the fact that 43% of companies responding to this survey had not made any changes because none were requested - the highest figure since we began asking this question in winter 2017 when the percentage was 28%. This suggests either that investors now have more pressing concerns or that more companies are proposing policies with which their investors are content.

Bellwether shows that the FTSE 350 has a whole raft of measures in place to impose discipline on executive remuneration. 95% of respondents consider pay structures and incentives across the wider workforce when discussing executive remuneration. Furthermore, 71% take the pay ratio between the chief executive and the average employee into consideration. Consideration is also given to share plans and the gender pay gap. 85% of respondents consider employee share plans across the wider workforce and 68% take the gender pay gap into consideration (up from 37% a year ago).

While the focus on executive pay has been one of the dominant corporate governance issues affecting the UK market in recent years, elsewhere other areas of focus are drawing attention. In the United States, 181 US chief executives have signed a letter calling on corporate leaders to take into account all stakeholders, including employees, customers and the wider society, rather than just shareholders. The Business Roundtable lobbying group, which represents some of the world's most senior business leaders and is chaired by JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon, is ditching the idea that maximising profits for investors should be the main priority for companies, thereby signalling a major shift away from the principle that shareholders come first.

In the UK, the revised UK Corporate Governance Code already stresses the importance of considering the interests of all stakeholders, but it will be interesting to see if this shift towards wider customer and community targets by the US will have a knock-on effect elsewhere. Often where the US leads, others follow and with powerful business men like Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook signing their names to the letter, it will be interesting to see if Jamie Dimon's wish that the declaration will help to set a new standard for corporate leadership will come to fruition.

If customers are to move up the stakeholder ladder in terms of importance, then attention will undoubtedly need to be given to certain business practices. Prioritising profit rarely works in the customer's favour. Compulsory excesses that come with making a car insurance claim for fire, theft and accidental damage, for example, have risen by a quarter since 2012 according to Go Compare. Some drivers have had to pay up to £3,000 to claim money back after a fire or theft. What is more, many customers believe that insurers charge existing customers higher premiums than new customers, in effect penalising customer loyalty.

Similarly, there is employee discontent with many current working practices. Disgruntled employees of ASDA recently protested over a new flexible working arrangement which their employer says is necessary to create flexibility in the "immensely competitive" retail sector, but which employees say will force them to work on bank holidays and weekends and not be paid for any breaks.

Working practices, such as zero-hours contracts, have faced increased scrutiny in recent years. With some gig economy employers pilloried for unsatisfactory working conditions and a dilution of workers' rights, the TUC is calling for a shift in power from employers to unions, believing that Britain risks turning the clock back to the working conditions of the Victorian age unless unions have greater powers to organise and negotiate.

With one in five families stuck in problem debt because of low wages and unsecured borrowing, and other issues such as climate change moving up the business agenda in terms of importance, business might need to go back to the drawing board if it is truly to prioritise customers, employees and the environment over profit for shareholders.

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