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BOSTON (Reuters) - A decision by Coca-Cola Co's chief executive to decline his 2014 bonus did not go far enough, a well-known pay critic said Friday, indicating the company could face more scrutiny of its compensation ahead of its shareholder meeting this spring.
While Coke Chairman and Chief Executive Muhtar Kent declined a $2.5 million bonus, that amount was offset by increases in the value of his stock-based awards, said David Winters, whose Wintergreen Advisers owns about 2.5 million Coke shares.
"The problem is, he's created an impression he took a hit, and he didn't take the hit," said Winters, who runs the $1.3 billion Wintergreen Fund, in an interview.
Excluding a change in the value of Kent's pension, his total compensation last year was $18.1 million, or about the same as in 2013, according to Coke's pay disclosures.
However, Coke spokesman Petro Kacur noted how the value of stock and option awards to Kent will be cut in half this year, to an estimated $7.7 million from the $15.8 million he received in 2014.
The decline reflects performance challenges as Coke's total return for shareholders last year was 5.25 percent, lagging the 13.69 percent total return on the benchmark S&P 500 Index.
Kent declined his 2014 bonus "in light of the difficult but necessary decisions required as the company implements strategic actions to accelerate growth," according to Coke's proxy statement released on Thursday.
Coke of Atlanta has struggled to boost revenue amid sluggish demand for soft drinks. Winters' criticism last year made the company's pay plan a battleground, though it was ultimately approved by shareholders.
Coke spokesman Kacur said Kent's pay details were clearly and fully disclosed.
"Mr. Winters continues to make statements that are without merit in an attempt to try to grab headlines," Kacur said via e-mail.
After last year's criticism Coke made changes that drew some praise from Winters and Liz Cohernour, Wintergreen's chief operating officer, such as giving more details around pay calculations.
Winters said his firm plans to cast its ballots against Coke's pay in an advisory vote scheduled for the company's annual meeting on April 29.
Reporting by Ross Kerber; editing by Andrew Hay