Gerald Corbett, Chairman of Woolworths: Still crazy (about the railways) after all these years

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Gerald Corbett has been chairman of Woolworths for three years and chairman of the health club chain Holmes Place for one but his name will forever be associated with Railtrack and in particular two terrible train crashes: the first in 1999 when 31 people died at Ladbroke Grove and the second a year later at Hatfield, when an Inter-City express left the track, claiming four lives.

Gerald Corbett has been chairman of Woolworths for three years and chairman of the health club chain Holmes Place for one but his name will forever be associated with Railtrack and in particular two terrible train crashes: the first in 1999 when 31 people died at Ladbroke Grove and the second a year later at Hatfield, when an Inter-City express left the track, claiming four lives.

Mr Corbett was forced to quit as the chief executive of Railtrack after Hatfield and ever since he has been seeking closure, as have the survivors of those two accidents and the families of the passengers who died. Mr Corbett got closure of sorts last week when a judge at the Old Bailey threw out his prosecution over the Hatfield crash.

"You get a mixture of emotions," he says. "Relief is obviously one, another is the fact that a shadow is lifted from you and, yes, there is also a feeling of vindication. And then a bit of you feels angry that you and your colleagues should have been put through all this for four years when it turns out to have absolutely no substance. Railway men and their families have been put through the wringer for no reason.

"The chief executive is the boss and the buck stops with the boss and that is why I immediately tendered my resignation after the Hatfield crash. I thought that was right. But that is different from being personally at fault. In a big complex organisation employing 14,000 people it is possible for things to go wrong that have absolutely nothing to do with the boss. In the NHS, 5,000 people a year die from dirty hospitals and yet Sir Nigel Crisp does a perfectly good job. Bosses are human as well and they have rights and if they are innocent of wrongdoing I don't see why they should be prosecuted."

Had Mr Corbett, by any chance, been to see David Hare's coruscating indictment of rail privatisation and railway safety, The Permanent Way, a play which deals at length with Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, and the more recent Potters Bar crash? "Yes, and a really good bit of drama it was," he says. "It highlighted the nonsensical way the railways were privatised and the ineptness of their political management but factually it was based on a misconception because it wasn't privatisation which caused the crashes. They happened under BR as well."

He is sat in a small room at The Independent's offices and as if to prove his point, hanging on the wall directly behind him, purely by coincidence, is the newspaper's front page recalling another, even more horrific rail accident - the Clapham Junction crash in 1988.

History will judge the management of Railtrack but, if there is any justice, it will also call the politicians to account and in that respect Mr Corbett has no doubt who is the villain of the piece. "The key moment was after Ladbroke Grove when John Prescott decided to point the finger at Railtrack and appoint inspectors to review its safety processes because he was worried about his own position. That piece of news management had massive long-term effects. At a stroke, we were in the dock, signallers were being spat at, bricks were being chucked through signal box windows and a whole wave of vilification came towards us and that made it very difficult to hold the whole thing together. That was the beginning of the end.

"Then we went though the Cullen inquiry which was a bit like a medieval witch trial with people hissing at us from the back of the room. It was ghastly. All of that made the reaction to Hatfield inevitable."

As if to emphasis his point, Mr Corbett stands up and begins to pace the room. "The whole environment created by Prescott made it Mission Impossible. I think that was irresponsible. You cannot manage a public service unless you have got government air cover. It was that which made the railways unmanageable and has taken the railways to where they are today with punctuality twice as bad, costs twice as high and debt running into tens of billions. Is where we are now better than where it was when John Prescott strode into office in 1997. The answer is no."

Then, quite suddenly, he softens, and says: "The railways now have some chance. Network Rail [Railtrack's successor] is beginning to make some progress and it has got some fine managers and they now have got the tools for the job - twice the money we had, much easier delays targets and they don't have to make a profit. Even more important, they have a supportive minister. Labour has learnt that attacking the management, undermining it, vilifying it and then prosecuting it for no good reason doesn't actually result in a better public service."

Has Mr Corbett's experience at Railtrack left him scarred for life? He pauses before replying: "It was a profound experience. I learnt about crisis and about tragedy and about how to cope with very difficult situations and I learnt a lot about politicians. At times of crisis there are some people who run away and some people stand in the trench with you. I am not going to embarrass them by saying who they are but everybody knows who stayed in the trench and who didn't."

A stint running Railtrack would not be everyone's idea of a career-enhancing move. But Mr Corbett thinks it was the reason he landed the Woolies job after, as he put it, "lying doggo" for six months. "At the time they wanted someone with a high profile to pick up the mess and handle it if things went wrong. When I went in there it was in quite a bit of a mess. There was £200m of debt, £20m of excess stock and profits were going backwards at a rate of knots. There was no chief executive, marketing director or operations director. We had to stabilise the business quite quickly. Since then profits have more than doubled, the share price has gone from 25p to 45p and things are going quite well."

He puts it down to "Debbie" - the name Woolworths has given to its core customer. There are life-size cardboard cut-outs of Debbie all over Woolworths, including one at head office. "She is a mother with two kids, one boy, one girl. Her family income is £29,000 and she works part time," he says. "It may all sound trite but Debbie represents 28 per cent of our customers and 78 per cent of our sales. We have redefined the stores around her. At buyer meetings and whatever they talk about what Debbie wants, what her needs are how the stores should be laid out to accommodate them."

Mr Corbett is looking fit and relaxed. He has taken up golf (handicap of 24, he says with a self-deprecating chuckle), he and his wife holiday at their home in Minorca and, when he is not at work, he potters in the garden.

He needs to be on top form because the most important period of the year is approaching. Woolies makes 40 per cent of its sales and nearly all its profits at Christmas while January is by far the busiest month of the year for recruiting new members to Holmes Place. "If we blow it then we will have blown the year," he says, referring to both companies.

Still only 53, Mr Corbett surely has one more big job with a FTSE 100 company left in him? "My chief executive days are over," he says, "but I enjoy being a chairman and my reputation in the City is OK, always has been. Let's see what happens. These things are opportunity driven."

And then, unprompted, it is back to the railways. "You know, what caused the railway to spiral out of control was its political management as much as anything else. I don't think the railways demonstrated my incompetence. I was perfectly competent before I went in and I have been totally competent since I left. I think that says more about the railways than it does about me but I would say that wouldn't I."

Perhaps closure will take just a little longer.

Return Trip To Retail

Age: 53

Pay: £199,000

Career: Group financial controller at Dixons and then stints as finance director, first at Redland, then Grand Metropolitan. Joined Railtrack as chief executive in 1997 and left in 2000. Appointed chairman of Woolworths in 2001 and chairman of Holmes Place in 2003.

Hobbies: Golf, gardening.

Personal: Married with four grown-up children.