Woolworths CEO Roger Corbett is the country’s most powerful retailer. Roger is also rather sensitive to criticism.

Woolies has form with the ACCC and is currently resisting a legal action from the Commission that rival Coles Myer settled last week with $4.75 million in fines and $250,000 in costs. That was a decision Woolies opposed up until yesterday, when it dropped its opposition to the Coles deal in the Federal Court in Sydney.

In an interesting comment, presiding judge Roger Gyles described the settlement figure for the Coles case as on “the low side”, given the size of Coles. He’s reserved his decision. That should be a head turner for Roger, but he will fight this case, just as he’s fought most of the other cases the company has had to face from the Commission.

But there was one case in the Northern Territory in 2003 settled by Roger when he realised he was on a hiding to nothing in the PR stakes. It’s about time Roger realised that he’s on a hiding to nothing with another case, this time in the NSW Licensing system, not the ACCC.

Crikey has reported on this before. It involves a couple on the NSW North Coast, Graham and Chris Downing who want to expand their small store to sell liquor. But Woolies say the move will affect its business at Yamba, 5km away.

A typical reaction from a big company: squash all opposition. What has particularly upset Roger is that this clash is being described as a “David and Goliath Battle”, a phrase used in a very useful spray at Woolies and Roger in the NSW Lower House in March by the local MP, Steve Cansdell who used the Biblical phrase, “David and Goliath” to describe the battle between the Downings and Woolies.

Roger wrote a letter to Mr Cansdell last month that said in part: “With respect, I reject any suggestion that Woolworths is acting as a Goliath”.

Roger says that all parties are equal before the court and the decision will be made on the merits of the case. But Roger, committed Christian as he is, forgets that Woolies is a $16 billion (market value) company with nearly $30 billion a year in sales, with some $3 billion of that figure this year coming from liquor (company’s own forecast).

The Downings, who are very small business people, are facing $50,000 in legal and other costs, a very large sum for them. This is exactly what big companies do to smaller competitors: use their large resources to beat, “starve” or defeat the small-fry into submission, and force them to accept what Woolies and others say.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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