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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 March 2005, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
Ratner prepares his return to the lions' den
By Bill Wilson
BBC News business reporter

Gerald Ratner is now selling jewellery online
Gerald Ratner: His 'crap' joke backfired spectacularly in 1991

Was there ever a more infamous sherry decanter than the one that caused the downfall of Gerald Ratner?

Back in the early 1990s the offending item could be bought in branches of High Street jeweller H Samuel, which was owned at the time by the family business Ratners.

But, when its boss stood up at the Institute of Directors (IoD) in 1991 and declared the object to be "total crap", the gaffe rapidly precipitated his downfall.

The speech was instantly seized upon by the media, an estimated 500m was wiped from the value of the company, he was given the boot 18 months later, and in 1994 the Ratner name was expunged from the company.

After 14 years spent living down one of the most famous foot-in-mouth moments in corporate history you would think Mr Ratner, now 55, would steer well clear of anything connected with the IoD.

I regret it every day of my life and I will regret it for a long time to come. It still really bugs me
Gerald Ratner

But, on April 27 he is to return to the stage of his public relations howler by giving a talk to the institute on the theme of 'recovering from adversity'.

And, it appears that after a roller-coaster time, he has indeed bounced back from adversity and is doing what he knows best - selling jewellery.

However, his earrings now cost hundreds of pounds, unlike the 99p Ratners pair which he notoriously said were "cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer, but probably wouldn't last as long".

'No offence'

The father-of-four is selling jewellery over the internet through his Geraldonline website, which was launched in November 2003.

Diamonds are particularly popular as the public looks to copy the glitzy "bling" lifestyle of the Beckhams and other celebrities.

However the shadow of that sherry decanter - which came complete with a set of glasses - still casts a long shadow.

"The decanter was stocked by H Samuel when we bought the chain, and I felt they were wasting store space with gifts I wouldn't have picked," he recalls.

Geraldonline website selling diamond rings and other jewellery
The Geraldonline website business hopes to break even this year

"I wasn't trying to 'tell the truth' or say that our products in some way really were crap.

"We had 80% of the UK market and there is no way I would have offended or looked down at our customers. It was a jokey reference."

So despite making millions from a gym he founded, and in spite of sales going well on the jewellery website, he still remembers that fateful day.

"I wasn't nervous or drunk or anything like that. I read it off the autocue. It took me ages to write the speech and it was changed at the last minute and the joke put in.

"Why it made such a big story was because the media all had hand-outs of the speech, and it was made in front of 6,000 business people.

"Also, because we were in the middle of a recession and I was seen by some journalists as a 'fat-cat', it ended up costing me my business. It was a hideous blow."

'Wrong French'

The keep-fit fanatic says he will start his IoD talk by looking back at the time of his comments in 1991.

He "went through a difficult time and struggled on for 18 months", before being forced out of the family business, which was rechristened Signet.

And, as he recalls, there was some further adversity still to come before he turned the corner.

Gerald Ratner
Born 1949
Joins family business 1966
Managing director Ratners from 1982 to 1992
Works as business consultant during mid-1990s
Starts health club in 1996
Sells it in 2001 for 3.9m
Launches Geraldonline in 2003

"My lowest point was in the mid-1990s when I went to France as a jewellery consultant. It was a difficult time, and I was away from home.

"I had to learn French, and spent a long time doing that. Then, when I got there they told me I had learned the wrong type of French.

"I had learned conversational French and they said I should have learned business French. They just wanted me out, they didn't want me there."

'Head together'

During this time it was cycling that helped him "get his head together" and he still cycles around 20 miles a day.

For four years he worked as a general business consultant, before setting up a health club in Henley.

He sold that for 3.9m in 2001 and one of the club's members, Goldsmiths head Jurek Piasecki, encouraged him to go back into the jewellery trade.

He has diamonds cut and polished in India through business co-owner, Bombay-based SB&T, and says Geraldonline is "on target" to break even this year.

Now he is back on his feet, does he have any regrets about his infamous remarks - or was it all part of life's rich pageant?

"Of course I regret it," he splutters. "I regret it every day of my life and I will regret it for a long time to come.

"People expect me to say 'oh no I don't regret a thing', like it is in the movies. But it still really bugs me."




SEE ALSO
Ratner loses battle for name
15 Jul 02 |  Business
Ratner hopes to sparkle again
27 May 02 |  Business

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