Network Rail boss unexpectedly quits as bonus showdown looms

Outgoing CEO Iain Coucher has had his critics, but he's done a good job of improving punctuality.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Surprise news from Network Rail, the quasi-private rail infrastructure operator, today: chief executive Iain Coucher said he was stepping down from the top job after three years, although he'll hang around until his successor is appointed (suggesting this wasn't exactly planned). Given the timing of the departure, some have inevitably suggested a link with the imminent announcement about Network Rail's annual bonuses. But Coucher insists it's just about its new funding cycle - and we wouldn't be surprised that with the new Government preparing to slash budgets, another five years in charge seemed like more trouble than it was worth...

Coucher - the subject of the MT interview last summer - has been with Network Rail for eight years, and CEO for the last three. Recent performance has been a bit mixed: profits for the year to March shrank to £395m, down from £1.5bn, thanks to lower track access charges, but it also trumpeted the fact that 91.5% of our trains are now running on time - something that's long been a focus for Coucher. His chairman described him as an 'outstanding leader', while customer group Passenger Focus praised his 'relentless attention to getting more trains on time... [which] has helped underpin the gradual rise in rail passenger satisfaction over the last few years.'

But he hasn't had an entirely easy ride. Recently the rail regulator criticised the company's record on safety and cost-cutting. Newspapers like to point out that his salary is three times that of the Prime Minister, and although he waived his £300,000 annual bonus last year, he took some stick for accepting a £150,000 pay-out. The decision on this year's bonuses is due at the end of this month, and new Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has already been leaning on him to 'display sensitivity' (which we think is politician-speak for 'don't fill yer boots'). And Bob Crow's RMT is apparently glad to see the back of him - although we’d argue that's something to be proud of...

Another high-profile leader whose bonus arrangements are in the spotlight today is Howard Stringer, the Welsh-born boss of Japanese company Sony. It's emerged (courtesy of a new Japanese law) that he'll pocket about $4.5m this year, despite the electronics giant posting a loss of $450m. Although Sony is forecasting a profit for next year, shareholders might wonder why he's getting a payout now - particularly since he already gets paid more than pretty much any other Japanese CEO. One investor told Reuters that it was 'the Japanese way... to tighten your own belt a bit when you're making a loss.' Fortunately for Stringer, the Japanese way also seems to involve not kicking up too much of a fuss. And since we're not privy to the exact deal Stringer has with Sony, maybe it's fair enough.

Nonetheless, the fact that it's even making news highlights that times are changing: CEOs can expect a lot more scrutiny of their munificent rewards in the coming years, unless they really are delivering exceptional performance. And it's going to be even tougher in the UK's public sector, as it faces up to a new age of austerity. No wonder Coucher decided it was time to get off before the end of the line. But it'll be interesting to see where he ends up.

In today's bulletin:
Hayward survives seven-and-a-half-hour kicking from Congress
Network Rail boss unexpectedly quits as bonus showdown looms
CGT rise will hurt the recovery, says BCC (and Lord Sugar)
Letters from Malawi: Four hours of stamp duty
My Week: Michelle Dewberry of Chiconomise

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