-By Emma Thomasson
January 21, 2013- (Reuters) – In February 2008, Thomas Minder, a Swiss businessman whose family-owned company is best known for its old-fashioned herbal toothpaste, attacked his banker, UBS Chairman Marcel Ospel, as if he were a form of stubborn plaque. At a shareholders' meeting in Basel, he stormed the podium as Ospel addressed the crowd. Ospel's bodyguards grappled with Minder and wrestled him away before he could land his symbolic blow — he was trying to hand the embattled head of Switzerland's largest bank a bound copy of Swiss company law, which codifies corporate temperance.
"Gentlemen, you are responsible for the biggest write-downs in Swiss corporate history," Minder had railed just a few minutes before, referring to UBS's loss of $50 billion during the subprime meltdown that prompted it to seek a government bailout. "Put an end to the Americanization of UBS corporate philosophy!"
The bodyguards marched Minder out of the hall amid a chorus of boos and jeers. Two months later, Ospel was gone, taking the fall for UBS's recklessness, but Minder's campaign against big bonuses had only just begun; shortly after Ospel was ousted, Minder filed the 100,000 signatures needed to launch a referendum to impose some of the tightest controls on executive compensation in the world.
Of the top 100 Swiss companies, 49 give shareholders a consulting vote on the pay of executives. A few other countries, including the United States and Germany, have introduced advisory "say on pay" votes in response to the anger over inequality and corporate excess that drove the Occupy Wall Street movement. Britain is also planning to implement rules in late 2013 that will give shareholders a binding vote on pay and "exit payments" at least every three years. Minder's initiative goes further, forcing all listed companies to have binding votes on compensation for company managers and directors, and ban golden handshakes and parachutes. It would also ban bonus payments to managers if their companies are taken over, and impose severe penalties — including possible jail sentences and fines — for breaches of these new rules.
Despite strong opposition from the business elite, Minder's initiative is given a good chance of passing when it goes to a vote on March 2. Even if his referendum fails, the country will automatically adopt a counterproposal put forward by parliament that would compel companies to hold votes on executive pay, although the results would not be binding.