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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Digital Optimisation Executive - Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's fastest growing, multi...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Reporting Manager

£70000 - £90000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Financial Reporting Manager i...

Recruitment Genius: Payments Operations Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They win lots of awards for the...

Recruitment Genius: Telephone Debt Negotiator

£13500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This nationwide enforcement com...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific