For all his folksiness, Woolies CEO Roger Corbett is a skilful media manipulator as he appears as a down-to-earth retailer with his name tag on his tie and his neighbourly way of speaking.

But have no doubt: Roger is tough as nails and calculating when it comes to promoting Woolies and its shareholders, of which he is one with more than $50 million worth of shares at last count – just ask the fruit and dairy farmers, unions and real estate owners who have had to deal with the Corbett-led Woolies over the past six years.

Woolies today revealed first half earnings up 22.3% to $703 million after tax, and up 31% to $902 million before tax and interest (EBIT). That puts Roger’s company on track to be the first Australian retailer to earn more than a billion dollars in year before and after tax.

In today’s AFR there is a skilfully placed story about Woolies and succession and a long Roger interview. And today’s statement from the Woolies board accompanying the profit announcement talks about succession and reveals the company will be in a position to make a statement in May about Roger’s successor.

But perhaps the most interesting story in today’s press was the one buried on Page 2 of the Daily Telegraph, by John Rolfe (not online), claiming that Roger thought of quitting because the company’s push into liquor and gambling was “at odds with his (Roger’s) Christian faith.” According to The Tele Roger’s admission was made at a Sydney church congregation Sunday night, and quoted the Woolies chief as saying he believed “God is dead” in modern society.

Following an address entitled ‘Values in Retailing,’ Corbett, a devout Anglican said “he was caused an enormous amount of personal challenge when rival Coles Myer began buying hotels in 2003.”

Roger said that he went to the Woolies board with a counter proposal that was ‘”inconsistent with my personal beliefs” (He could have resigned, couldn’t he?) “But I am not a value-setter for the community”.

So the board said yes, and Roger jumped into bed with Bruce Mathieson in pubs and liquor outlets in Queensland, then bought Australian Leisure and Hospitality and then the Taverner Group. And now Roger’s Woolies is the nation’s biggest pokie owner with 12,000 machines and the biggest pub owner and the biggest liquor retailer.

So who made him do it. The Devil?

Peter Fray

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