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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Barclay chief's gaffe recalls Ratner howler
By Bill Wilson
BBC News Online business reporter

Gerald Ratner
Gerald Ratner has reason to regret his injudicious comments

They call it 'doing a Ratner' - in memory of the famous gaffe committed by Gerald Ratner back in 1991, when he admitted selling "crap" in his High Street shops.

Now the boss of the UK's largest credit card company has done it in such a spectacular fashion that it left business observers open-mouthed.

Barclays chief executive Matt Barrett candidly criticised his own product, suggesting that the astute consumer would do well to steer well clear of it.

Giving evidence to the Commons' Treasury select committee he said he did not use credit cards from his own subsidiary, Barclaycard, because it was simply too expensive.

He also revealed that he advised his four offspring to have nothing to do with credit cards either.

Some city centre stores are vast open deserts with nobody there
Woolworths chairman Gerald Corbett
"I do not borrow on credit cards. I have four young children. I give them advice not to pile up debts on their credit cards."

Doing a Ratner

Back in 1991, Gerald Ratner's famous speech was instantly seized upon by the media, wiping an estimated 500m from the value of the company, and in 1994 his name was expunged from the company.

Addressing the Institute of Directors Mr Ratner had joked that his Ratner's High Street chain "sold a pair of earrings for under a pound, which is cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer, but probably wouldn't last as long".

Matthew Barrett
Mr Barrett has told his children to steer clear of credit cards

The foot was rammed further into his mouth when he followed up by saying a tacky sherry decanter was so cheap because it was "total crap".

Members of the public did not take kindly to being taken for fools, and in the furore that followed they stopped shopping at his stores.

Mr Ratner then left the company and the group - which included H Samuel and Ernest Jones - was eventually rebranded as Signet.

It remains to be seen whether Barclaycard will suffer a similar backlash after Mr Barrett's comments, but MPs took a dim view of the interest rates charged by the credit card.

'Court case'

Mr Barrett was criticised by the Treasury committee for the fact that the interest charged on a Barclaycard has fallen by just 3.5% to 17.9% since 1992, even though UK interest rates have fallen by two thirds during the same period.

Another high profile PR disaster occurred in July 2001, when Topman brand chief David Shepherd gave an off-the-cuff interview to trade magazine Menswear.

When asked by the interviewer to clarify the Topman target customer, he said: "Hooligans or whatever".

Ploughing on, he added: "Very few of our customers have to wear suits to work.

"They'll be for his first interview or first court case."

Retail giant Arcadia, which owns Topman, defended Mr Shepherd's remarks, which they said were taken out of context.

They said: "David did not mean to cause any offence. He's very committed to his customers and his product."

Furious Finns

Other businessmen to have committed Ratner or Barrett style bloopers include Woolworths' Gerald Corbett and EMI's Alain Levy.

In March 2002, when delivering a less-than-rosy verdict on progress at his stores, Mr Corbett said: "Some city centre stores are vast open deserts with nobody there."

EMI's chief executive, Alain Levy, also managed to annoy a Finnish subsidiary record label when he took a swipe at the Scandinavian country's musical talent.

Speaking in March 2003, he said EMI had cut the artist roster in that country from 49 artists, as he did not think there were that many people in the country "who could sing".

Predictably the joke went down like a lead balloon over in Helsinki, with the managing director of EMI's subsidiary pointing out that the Finnish firm commanded a 20% share of the local market thanks to Finns who can sing.




SEE ALSO:
Big banks accused of 'cynicism'
17 Oct 03  |  Business
Ratner loses battle for name
15 Jul 02  |  Business
Ratner hopes to sparkle again
27 May 02  |  Business
Topman customers 'hooligans'
19 Jul 01  |  Business


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