Gerald Corbett is a businessman in the United Kingdom. Described by David Freud in his book "Freud in the City" as "immensely approachable, a short and jovial figure, full of impromptu quips relayed to the accompaniment of short, barks of laughter", he has been a director of eleven Public Companies - four of them as Chairman, but he is most notable for once being the chief executive of Railtrack.
After studying history at Cambridge University, where he was a foundation scholar, he attended London and Harvard business schools before joining Boston Consulting Group, which advises on corporate strategy, in the mid-70s. In 1982, he joined electrical retailer Dixons, where he became group Financial Controller and Corporate Finance Director.
He left after five years to be Group Finance Director at international building materials firm Redland. In 1993, he became Group Finance Director of Grand Metropolitan, the food and drink giant. In February 1996 in The Mail on Sunday, Patience Wheatcroft identified Corbett as one of business' "high powered hot shots" who would lead British business into the new millennium.
Railtrack was the most controversial of the Conservative government privatisations. The railway was dismembered into over 100 different pieces of which by far the largest was Railtrack which owned and operated the infrastructure. The privatisation was bitterly opposed by Labour who maintained their hostility to the company throughout its existence. Yet Railtrack's annual reports and in a series of regulatory submissions and documents published by the office of the Rail Regulator, under Corbett, train punctuality improved to levels not seen before, investment rose, profits increased, the share price went up and the safety record steadily improved. 1998 was the first year since 1902 in which no passenger died in a train crash. In 1998 Railtrack rescued the Channel Tunnel rail link, which was subsequently delivered on budget and on time. The Financial Times on 12 June 1998 described Corbett as a "hard nosed leader of men and a tough negotiator." By the year 2000, 20% more people were travelling by rail than under old BR.
At the time of his appointment, Corbett admitted to journalists that he had no experience whatever of the industry. In September 1997, three weeks after his appointment, a First Great Western express train from Swansea collided with a freight train at Southall, West London, killing seven passengers. Twenty seven months later, in October 1999, another Intercity train collided with a commuter train near Paddington, killing 31 people. It was Britain's worst rail disaster in a decade. Nevertheless, Corbett survived the pressure to resign from his job. Alastair Morton Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority said in a speech the week following the crash that "Railtrack should be grateful for the leadership Gerald Corbett has shown in the aftermath of the crash".
Labour politicians continually fanned the flames attacking Railtrack. Corbett who became the mouthpiece of the privatised railway, was frequently on TV and Radio defending his company.
In early 2000, he made a public apology on the BBC's Today programme on behalf of Railtrack: "The work we have done has..... been truly dreadful and it's largely down to us and our contractors. We are trying to do a hell of a lot of work and the way we have been doing it has not been good enough."
A year after the Paddington crash, in October 2000, a train from London to Leeds derailed at Hatfield, resulting in four deaths. Corbett’s resignation was initially rejected by the Railtrack board following wide public support. The Times Leader of 19 October, titled "Staying Power", stated that his departure would be "a disaster for Britain's railways". The same day on the BBC 7 o'clock news Corbett identified the Railways problem as its fragmentation. The railway had been "ripped apart by privatisation". He urged Government and regulators to "think the unthinkable". But he eventually left with a compensation package estimated to be worth £1.3m in total (of which £900,000 was his accrued pension benefit). Christian Wolmar, the well known transport journalist, wrote in his book “On the wrong line”, that “Corbett’s departure just made things worse for Railtrack. He was one of the railway's few class acts” .
Corbett was personified on the London stage in David Hare's "The Permanent Way" and in the television film "Derailed". These dramatisations showed the private tension beneath the public face and noted that Corbett had his own share of personal tragedy. His father was killed at an early age by a drunk driver in a car accident. Corbett is married to an artist. Together they have four children, and he himself is one of five brothers.
More recently, Corbett's time at the Railways has begun to be seen in a different light. In July 2007 in an article in the Daily Telegraph, George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies pointed out that Network Rail's delays were still 24% worse than the performance achieved by Railtrack under Corbett in 1999/2000. He said "Gerald Corbett, who everyone was so rude about, had fewer delays in 1999 than Network Rail has now." He went on to say that he was fed up with Network Rail's excuses as "they had been at it for 5 years" and that they had "very significant advantages compared to Railtrack, "more money" and that "delay minutes should now be well below those of 1999/2000". He pointed out that in the same period, the train operators had reduced their delays by 28%.
In March 2001, he was back at the helm of another major company, Woolworths, appointed to oversee the demerger of Woolworths Group from Kingfisher. Once this was completed in August 2001, he remained on the board as Chairman.
In October 2003, he was appointed non-executive chairman of Health Club Holdings, the Holmes Place fitness clubs business, which he stepped down from at the end of 2005 following his appointment as Chairman of soft drinks company Britvic, to oversee its flotation in December 2005 on the London Stock Exchange. He has also been a non-executive director of Burmah-Castrol plc and the MEPC property group.
He stepped down as chairman of Woolworths at the AGM in June 2007 after completing his second three year term. He was appointed chairman of Moneysupermarket.com in July 2007, the leading price comparison website which floated on the London Stock Exchange in the same month.
Since 2003 he has been a non-executive director of Greencore Group plc, the Irish food company headquartered in Dublin. In May 2009 he was appointed a director of Numis Plc, the investment banking and stockbroking business based in the city of London. He was Chairman of the Governors of Abbot'sHill School between 1997-2002 and has been a governor of Luton University.
In the recent past Corbett has kept out of the public eye, focusing on his Chairmanships at SSL International Plc, Britvic Plc, Moneysupermarket.com Plc and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.