Warren Buffett, the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (A:US), said he opposes Coca-Cola Co.’s plan to pay employees with stock and abstained from a vote on the proposal out of loyalty to the soft-drink maker.
“I could never vote against Coca-Cola, but I couldn’t vote for the plan either,” Buffett said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Betty Liu in New York. “That’s just the way I feel about the people there.”
Eighty-three percent of investor votes cast at the company’s annual meeting yesterday supported the equity plan, according to preliminary results in an e-mailed statement from Atlanta-based Coca-Cola. David Winters, a money manager who invests in both the soft-drink maker and Berkshire, had called on Buffett to oppose the pay plan, saying it violates the billionaire’s principles on stock dilution.
Buffett, who controls the largest stake (KO:US) in Coca-Cola, said it was proper for Winters to go public with his criticism. And while Buffett said he disagrees with some of the figures used by Winters, he shares the thought that the company plans to give out too much stock.
“I think it’s a great company, it’s run by great people, and I think it’s got a great future,” Buffett said. “I just think the plan is excessive.”
Berkshire’s Coca-Cola holding has climbed more than 12-fold since Buffett began accumulating the stake in the 1980s. It’s now valued at about $16.3 billion.
Buffett often drinks Coca-Cola beverages at public appearances and told Liu that he’s good friends with Muhtar Kent, the company’s chief executive officer. Howard G. Buffett, the billionaire’s son, sits on Coca-Cola’s board.
Winters had said the latest equity plan, in addition to ones already enacted, could transfer $29.8 billion to the Coca-Cola managers. Coca-Cola said it granted long-term equity compensation to about 6,400 employees in 2013.
Winters’s Wintergreen Advisers LLC said after the vote that it was pleased with the level of opposition and welcomes further discussion about executive pay -- even if Buffett only voiced his concerns after the fact.
“We are surprised that Warren Buffett had the opportunity to take a stand against excessive management compensation and failed to seize it,” Wintergreen said in a statement.
Coca-Cola has said that stock repurchases, including $4.8 billion of buybacks in 2013, cushion the dilution tied to employee awards. Dilution related to equity plans has been less than 1 percent annually over the past three years, “and is expected to be in this range going forward,” the company said in a presentation.
Coca-Cola also said that the link of the pay to performance means that all the potential awards may not be earned.
“The equity plan is fair, competitive and consistent with share owners’ interests and our pay for performance philosophy,” according to a statement from Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola shares have declined 1.4 percent this year, trailing the 1.5 percent gain of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
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