There are some things money can’t buy – or rather it takes an awful lot of money to buy them. The chance to wear stunning diamonds head to toe for the UK Jewellery Awards, the opportunity to live like a millionaire onboard a yacht in the Mediterranean, tickets courtside on Wimbledon semi-final day – and all of these are things that the Retail Jeweller team have experienced or are experiencing in the next few weeks.
But yesterday, I had an experience I will never forget – not onboard a luxury Sunseeker, on Centre Court or even in Park Lane, but at the Houlden Group Members’ Meeting in Uckfield.
The group had invited Gerald Ratner to speak to their members, and it was one of the most entertaining speeches I have had heard.
Despite being hung out to dry for his candour in the early ‘90s, the man whose name has become synonymous with making a headline gaffe is still one of the most open and unguarded public speakers on the circuit. In fact, I interviewed him when he launched Geraldonline about seven years ago, and he was equally frank back then.
It’s that honesty that talked him into so much trouble in 1991, after he described a sherry decanter and glass set as “crap” and said that earrings he was selling at the time were cheaper than a prawn sandwich but would not last as long.
The press jumped on it, haranguing him at every turn. The Sun even took an item known as his “unbreakable gold chain” and tied it to a car and drove around until the name was proved a falsehood. Still today, his name has become the verb used to describe a mistake, and he is still topping the lists of the greatest blunders ever made.
But he himself says it may be his most famous, but not one of his most spectacular. “I decided to extend my jewellery shops into Europe, buying a jewellery premises in Amsterdam because sales in the UK were going so well,” he told us. “But I noticed that takings did not go up at Christmas, so I asked the previous owner of the shop, ‘Do people in Holland not exchange gifts at Christmas or something?’. And he said ‘no’.” That was a pretty big mistake.
But it was his jests at the expense of his stock that he is most renowned for. It was a move that wiped out not only his own company and personal wealth, but also damaged all those supplying the Ratners brand in the last painful recession we faced in the early ‘90s. Despite that, it’s hard not to warm to a man who tells you that he ended up owing a billion pounds to the bank and hibernated in bed watching Countdown before his wife forced him to get back into business.
There were some compensations of being in so much debt, he told us. “You don’t need to make an appointment to see your bank manager,” he said. “He phones, and you ask – is it about that billion pounds?”
Ratner recovered by starting his own health club, without premises, but by promising members who signed up and paid by direct debit, that he would offer them a luxurious place to work out. Nine out of ten banks refused to lend him money, and the tenth only did because the bank manager’s wife had signed up to the at that stage mythical gym herself.
Ratner met Goldsmiths’s Jurek Piasecki at that health club, who persuaded him to re-enter the jewellery business because of his famous name.
Launching in December 2003, Geraldonline got acres of press attention and hits thanks to its figurehead’s notoriety, and a little bit of spin from Max Clifford. He proved that you can rise like a phoenix from the ashes, and now runs the 216,000th largest site. It may not sound impressive, but in the scheme of things, it’s a pretty decent achievement.
Most recently, he’s been asked by Sky 1 to present a programme about business, highlighting the mistakes they have made. He originally refused, but when they offered him the money, his decision took a U turn. His wife was not so keen. “You’re going to go on telly, stay something stupid and then we’ll lose everything again, and then what will we do?” she asked him.
He ended his speech to us by telling us what he told her. “I’d just start all over again.”