Former jewellery magnate Gerald Ratner’s having the last laugh

Pedal power: Gerald Ratner credits cycling with easing his depression after he lost his business

Gerald Ratner likes to play it for laughs. And my word is he funny. Rip-roaringly, side-splittingly so. With his bone-dry humour and deadpan delivery, it is only his sparkling eyes that give away he is toying with you.

Ratner’s exuberance may come from the bombastic jewellers and diamond traders around London’s Spitalfields and Holborn he was surrounded by during his childhood.

His father was from the East End but Ratner, who was born in 1949, grew up in leafy Richmond. He joined the family jewellery business Ratners Group in 1966 and worked his way up to become chief executive in the 1980s.

Ratner reached the top during an era of fast money when London was booming. He was a man about town, driving a Rolls-Royce and socialising with other rich young men such as Michael Grade and the Saatchi brothers.

‘We had Margaret Thatcher, we had a government that was kind to business and there were young people with a lot of money to spend, unlike today,’ he says.

But Ratner’s career was just as high-flying as his partying. During his tenure, the company became the largest jewellers in the UK. It listed on the London Stock Exchange and he used this new access to the market to complete a number of merger deals, including H Samuel and Watches of Switzerland.

At its height, the group had 2,500 stores, including 1,000 in the US, with turnover of nearly £200 million per year.

It was Ratner’s trademark humour, however, that would also be his undoing. His world came crashing down exactly 32 years ago on April 23, 1991, when he told an off-colour joke while addressing a conference of the Institute of Directors at the Albert Hall.

‘We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95,’ he said in the speech, gearing up for his punchline. ‘People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’. I say, ‘Because it’s total crap.’ ‘

He soon added that ‘an M&S prawn sandwich’ would last longer than most of the earrings he sold.

Little did he know that there was a Mirror journalist in the audience. His comments were splashed across the front of the paper and he lost his empire overnight.

What on earth got into him? ‘My wife told me not to do it. She’s annoyingly always right. We’ve been married 33 years and she’s very rarely wrong even though you don’t want to hear it.’

The fall-out had serious repercussions for Ratner, who lost his fortune and job – resulting in him sliding into depression and being unable to get out of bed for years.

Losing a business – particularly a successful family one – can be crushing. Many don’t recover. But not Ratner. He says cycling saved him, adding that the drugs he took for his depression only made his situation worse. ‘I was on Prozac, it takes away your sharpness and your will. For me it wasn’t doing me any good. But I could see the benefits of the cycling, it was easing the depression. I still cycle 25 miles a day listening to music.’

By 1996, Ratner was out of bed and back on his feet, deciding to start a health club which he sold for £4 million in 2001.

Today, at the age of 73, he still has not retired, with jobs including a time on the after-dinner speaking circuit where he charges between £4,000 to £6,000 a gig. And he pulls no punches when he says it is his generation that is to blame for the UK’s slow growth.

He believes far too many people are retiring early – a phenomenon Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is also trying to reverse by scrapping the limit on pension savings.

Ratner is particularly irked by the gold-plated pensions that meant people could leave the workforce in their 50s.

He explains: ‘It’s not the idea of a pension to last longer than your working life. If you’re going to the golf course in your Jaguar and pink Pringle sweater with all your mates, ex-British Airways pilots and policemen, and telling bad jokes to one another, it is a bore.’

He adds: ‘It’s just self-gratification. We have a stupid system which pays you to retire. It’s not fit for purpose which is why all the old people have the money and the young have nothing.’

As well as working as a speaker, Ratner also offers advice to start-up businesses.

On retail he is shrewd, sharp and insightful and says many shops on the high street are struggling because they are run by accountants. As a result, retailers are too focused on cutting costs rather than investing in the business.

‘You have to continually invest in new products, new shops, and the more money you invest, the more you get out of it. Now it is the opposite, there’s a shortage of cash and people are not investing and so they’re not going forward. George Davies who created Next, he didn’t have a clue about numbers but he knew about retail. That’s what you want, someone with a gut feeling.’

He takes aim at Sharon White at John Lewis, which is considering bringing in outside investment for the first time in its history.

‘John Lewis is losing money because it’s run by someone who is not a retailer. She has no experience.’ He adds that the decision by John Lewis to end its store credit card deal with HSBC has hurt the business. The store cards are now run by little-known finance firm NewDay.

‘By moving it they’ve reduced the credit limit,’ he says. ‘That is the worst thing you can do. The higher your credit limit the more you can spend on your card. What possible reason was it? That’s why they’re losing money.’

John Lewis, however, insists that the vast majority of its customers have been offered the same or a higher credit limit. It says NewDay is required to assess each customer based on their current creditworthiness and affordability, and therefore cannot automatically match what they were previously offered.

By contrast, Ratner heaps praise on Primark, the budget retailer owned by Associated British Foods, which is successful despite having no online presence.

‘You can break all the rules in business. It makes no sense whatsoever but their shops are packed,’ he says. ‘And the fact they’re not online means their shops are even busier. If a shop is busy it attracts more people. If you see a shop with crowds of people you wonder what’s going on. It stops you.

‘I used to tell the staff when the shop was empty, ‘Go and put your coat on and pretend you are a customer.’ ‘

Ratner is content and happy in his career now – though I point out that if he stopped cracking jokes maybe he wouldn’t land himself in so much hot water. Ratner agrees – but he can’t help himself. He says: ‘Making people laugh got me into trouble and still does.’

Ratner admits he stands out in comparison to most other bosses, particularly the strait-laced corporate types who seem to make City investors feel comfortable.

‘They want a safe pair of hands,’ he says. ‘It was different in the 80s, they wanted the characters.’

While the business world may laud these ‘boring’ bosses, there should always be room for the Ratners too.