LONDON (Reuters) - Shareholders in William Hill (WMH.L), Britain's biggest bookmaker, joined a growing rebellion over executive pay, with almost half voting against a 1.2 million pound retention bonus for the chief executive.
William Hill said on Tuesday 49.9 percent of proxy votes were against the pay package, and 50.1 percent for.
Chairman Gareth Davis declared the resolution passed after a show of hands at the AGM. "In bookmakers' parlance, it was a short head," Davis told Reuters after the vote.
The non-binding vote reflects a "shareholder spring" over excessive rewards for bosses of Britain's top companies. The backlash prompted the departure of insurer Aviva's (AV.L) CEO Andrew Moss on Tuesday.
William Hill's CEO Ralph Topping, who has worked for the company since 1973, will be entitled to the bonus in shares if he stays on until the end of next year.
"I am a man of my word and I will not renege on that deal," Davis told shareholders, referring to the pay agreement which was announced last June when Topping turned 60.
"We have no intention of backing off...the management of William Hill is demonstrably creating value for all shareholders," Davis told shareholders, noting that proxy vote adviser ISS had been urging a rejection of the deal.
William Hill shares, which have risen over 30 percent in the last 12 months, fell 1.9 percent to 267 pence at 1239 GMT on Tuesday, underperforming the FTSE midcap index.
Many of the around 150 shareholders at the meeting in central London applauded Topping when he gave a presentation on the company performance.
Davis said that William Hill - which has had a resilient performance during the economic downturn and outperformed its British rivals - was a successful business and the deal was designed to lock in the services of one of the most experienced executives in the industry.
"For a very reasonable additional cost, we have secured Mr Topping's services I hope well beyond the end of 2013," he told shareholders during the meeting.
Topping, who has been CEO since 2008, had a basic salary of 600,000 pounds in 2011 and a total package of 1.71 million pounds, up from 1.65 million the previous year.
Reporting by Keith Weir; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle