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NRI’s bonus to wife sparks row
- £880,000-reward for ‘extra work’ invites investor criticism

London, Nov. 8: If Indians can get to be heads of global corporations, it couldn’t be long before charges of lining the pockets of the top management at the cost of the company caught up with them.

Dinesh Dhamija, the chief executive of Ebookers, a UK-based online travel agency which has also opened an India office, and one of the richest Indian businessmen in Britain, paid his wife Tani a cash bonus of £880,000.

The decision has been questioned by one of the company’s top investors, which has said it is taking a fresh look at its commitment.

“It’s mischief-making,” said a friend of Tani, 51.

“She is not a Betsy,” added her friend, referring to the row caused by the revelation that the recently ousted Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, had been making payments of about £15,000 for her work as his secretary.

The payment to Tani was revealed when Ebookers published its accounts early this week. The money was reward for extra work she had done in restructuring the company and expanding its call centre operations in India. On the basis of independent advice, the money was paid to her in cash, rather than in share options.

“Concerns were raised over Ebookers’ corporate governance yesterday (Monday) after it emerged that the wife of the online travel agency’s chief executive had been awarded a £880,000 cash bonus. The group said the payment to Tani Dhamija, who founded the business with her husband Dinesh, had been granted in recognition of her valuable contribution to integrating operations and setting up an offshore arm in India two years ago,” the Financial Times newspaper said last Tuesday.

“Morley Fund Management, one of Ebookers’ top 12 investors, said the pay-out had prompted it to review its holding,” it added.

The paper quoted Iain Richards, head of governance at Morley Fund, as saying: “‘We see it as a negative. It heightens the corporate governance risk we associate with the company. Any arrangements paid retrospectively should be of concern and clearly explained, and they were not.’”

Dhamija defended his wife, saying that she did not own any shares but sat on the board as an executive director. Following accountants’ advice, the company’s remuneration committee had said the £880,000 bonus was “more appropriate” given the rise in the company’s share price, he said.

The newspaper implied that the payment was not justified, pointing out that Tani “just happens to be the wife of Dinesh Dhamija, the company’s founder, chief executive and holder of 42 per cent of the equity”.

The couple’s 42 per cent stake is now worth £131 million.

Oliver Strong, a spokesman for Ebookers, which specialises in long and mid-haul flights, hotels and car hire, said: “It rankles some… that Dinesh and Tani Dhamija are a husband and wife team. They say, ‘What’s going on'’ The company has strict monitoring and company governance.”

One of her friends, from their college days in Delhi, disclosed that Tani is the daughter of General .P. Malhotra, a former chief of the army staff. Tani met her husband when she was working as an Air-India air hostess.

The couple has two sons, Biren and Darun.

The notion that Tani has been an idle wife, who has been given a huge bonus as a tax dodge, was dismissed by her friend.

“I don’t know the rights and wrongs of the method of payment but without her, there would be no company,” she said. “She has worked for the company from day one.

Last year, the couple celebrated the 25th wedding anniversary by inviting friends to an Egyptian cruise on the Nile.

The newspaper acknowledged that “Mrs Dhamija is an executive director of the company and the payment is said to be in recognition of her restructuring of the UK operations and establishing an operation in India. The company explained that in May last year the remuneration committee had suggested she be awarded share options covering 1.5 per cent of the company, but after taking external advice the board had decided to pay a smaller cash sum instead.”

Dinesh’s explanation will go down well with feminists: “Women these days don't like being taken for granted. It’s very important they get credit for what they do.”

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