Should she pay it back? Dreamworld bonus sparks outrage

By Frank Chung

CEO Deborah Thomas fronts a press conference following the company's AGM.
CEO Deborah Thomas fronts a press conference following the company's AGM.

The decision by Dreamworld owner Ardent Leisure to award its chief executive nearly $850,000 in performance bonuses in the wake of an accident that killed four people has sparked outrage.

At the company's fiery annual general meeting in Sydney on Thursday, two days after the accident on the Gold Coast theme park's Thunder River Rapids white water rafting ride, CEO Deb Thomas refused to answer questions about her bonus, with chairman Neil Balnaves defending the decision.

Asked how she could accept "nearly $1 million" in bonuses following the tragedy, the former Australian Women's Weekly editor snapped back at the journalist. "I'm not getting paid a million dollars," she said.

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"Four people died very recently and we are all shattered. Right now I do not want to discuss transactions. I don't think it's appropriate under the circumstances."

Mr Balnaves said any bonus Ms Thomas received "relates to the prior year, a year the company performed in very good terms". "The tragedy is only 48 hours old," he said. "It is inappropriate to comment on commercial matters at this time."

The company rejected calls from shareholders to defer voting on remuneration payments, even though proxy voting closed on Tuesday morning before accident.

Shareholders approved the issue of two sets of performance bonuses for Ms Thomas worth nearly $843,000, consisting of a long-term incentive and short-term incentive based on the financial year just gone.

Australian Shareholders' Association director Alan Golden said the short-term incentive, which consisted of 50 per cent cash and 50 per cent deferred shares, should at least be reconsidered.

"The short-term incentive in particular does have a safety component and should be looked at," he said. "What she received was 100 per cent of her short-term incentive. That would mean everything was all good, it all worked.

"Until there's a proper inquiry we have no idea - it could be called just an act of God. But if they're saying there's some responsibility on the company, you would hope there was provision to claw that back."

Mr Golden said usually the reason most companies paid deferred shares was so they had the ability to claw back the payment. Responding to the ASA's questions during the AGM, Mr Balnaves said it had been done for accounting purposes.

"So there doesn't seem to be the ability to claw it back for malfeasance," Mr Golden said. "I'm not saying there is yet." However, Mr Golden said it was "very rare" for such bonuses to be clawed back.

On the long-term incentive, Mr Golden said the payment was less certain. "That is a potential bonus that will be awarded if certain conditions are met, related to total shareholder return and earnings per share," he said.

"Because of the way the share price is being affected at the moment, to be honest it will be difficult for those conditions to be met.

"How much money is going to be lost because of Dreamworld we can only guess. We don't know what's going to happen as far as patronage, lawsuits, but we do know revenue will be lower, profit will be lower, that we're certain."

On social media, many called for Ms Thomas to donate her bonus to the families of the victims. Others criticised the company's handling of the bonus question. "Neil Balnaves + Deborah Thomas on that $843K bonus confirms my prejudice that TIN EARS are a prerequisite for corporate office," Peter Fyfe tweeted.




- news.com.au

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