Roger Corbett may be having difficulty finding a successor at Woolworths, but al least Dean Wills is keeping his seat warm for him over at Fairfax.

Roger Corbett is back on television screens, telling us viewers how good the coming changes at Woolworths logistics chain will be for us consumers.

Every Day Low Prices etc etc.

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No mention of Australian Leisure Holdings and its fleet of pubs and Poker Machines, of course. Just the back-end revamp in Woolies supermarkets business.

And in doing so he’s also being trailed across the screen by the two best-placed replacements for the Woolies boss and Australia’s newest Poker Machine King.

There he is on Business Sunday, elsewhere on Nine, on the Seven Network and on Ten, striding through the aisles of a Woolies supermarket spruiking the benefits of Projects Refresh, Mercury and whatever code named project the super sleuths at the retailer can dream up for the suite of changes being driven at the back end of the process by Roger.

The last time Roger featured so heavily was about a decade ago when he was running Big W stores under the late Harry Watts.

He has popped up from time to time since, but they have been for the occasional campaign.

Woolies is a very rare company, it has had this odd policy for years of allowing the senior executives in the company to appear in advertisements, not every week month or year, but at specific times.

When at Big W Roger was allowed to appear on camera in stores and in ads selling the benefits of the Woolies discount general merchandising chain. It’s mini-version of a Walmart store.

And in the past couple of years, Roger allowed the head of supermarkets, Tom Flood to front the launch of the important Every Day Low Prices campaign that unfortunately stalled and got knocked over by the slowness of expanding Woolies’ petrol offer and by the dramatic growth of the rival Coles Express petrol offer.

On top of that Tom Flood decided unexpectedly to retire this year because of the illness of his wife.

He was made head of supermarkets after the previous occupant, Bill Wavish, another Roger selection, proved unsuitable.

Those failed moves aborted Roger’s plans to retire, and the Woolies chairman, James Strong, was forced to announce in August that Roger would be staying on for at least two more years.

That in turn had a knock-on effect with Roger’s retirement package of shares and options falling due under a cap and collar arrangement with Macquarie Bank. That was designed to crystallise Roger’s retirement package, having protected the value for the past couple of years.

The company revealed three other important management moves, with Michael Luscombe moving to head up the supermarkets and Marty Hamnett becoming director of General Merchandise after running Big W. Hamnett doesn’t need supermarket experience, he ran Woolies supermarkets businesses in Western Australia and Queensland before heading up Big W.

SMH – Woolies chief stays for the fight

And guess which executives Roger has put into the ad? Marty Hamnett and Michael Luscombe, the two contenders (the other senior move involved Bernie Brooks to a non line operational role).

And there was Roger, Michael and Marty, the three most important executives in Woolies, with assorted staff in various supermarkets, distribution centres, and elsewhere in the supply chain telling us what wonderful things, at ‘every day low prices’ would be coming our way.

No mention of the ALH takeover, nor the move into poker machines. Now that will be a tough to sell to the punters, every day low payouts, perhaps?

And wasn’t it great to see the cost to Woolies of the ALH deal at $44 million, mostly the bill for the ALH management defending the company and driving up returns to shareholders.

The ALH came as Roger’s retirement was being put on hold. Before that, he had big plans.

And what were these? Well to the chairmanship of Fairfax. He really saw himself staying on as CEO of Woolies and becoming chair of Fairfax at the latter’s annual meeting on late last month.

Roger would have stayed to keep the ALH bid on track and then bedded down. A lot of time, money and reputation has been sunk into the ALH deal. But the deal was for Dean Wills, the Fairfax chairman not to stand for re-election this year, had Roger been free.

Ron Walker was announced as deputy chairman on Friday, but has no chance of being chairman.

Roger is the only director on the board with the age and experience in running a major business to be a chairman. He loves the limelight and wants that chairman’s job at Fairfax.

But now that he has to stay to settle down ALH and the succession, those plans are off. That’s why 71 year old Wills put his hand up again.

Roger’s unavailability was known back in August when both companies were reporting 2004 results and preparing for the annual meeting and looking at board composition.

But barring ill health on Roger’s part, it is only a matter of time until he becomes chairman at Fairfax. That will happen after the new CEO is found and bedded down, but it is significant that at the Fairfax AGM (according to reports from investors there), Wills was unclear on just how long he would continue as chairman.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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