Gerald Ratner pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through his Twitter feed. We’re sitting backstage moments after he has given a speech about his fateful gaffe almost 30 years ago.
The infamous moment is still dragged up daily on social media – and Ratner says he can’t stop himself looking up who has become the latest target of the online mob.
‘Today it’s something about Jacob Rees-Mogg,’ Ratner sighs. ‘I go on Twitter and search myself every day. I’m a glutton for punishment and there’s always at least half a dozen references to someone who has ‘done a Ratner’.’
Infamous: Gerald Ratner makes between 40 and 50 speeches a year about his gaffe, earning around £4,000 a go
This is the man who once headed up Ratners Group, the largest jewellery business in the world, only for a bad joke at an after-dinner speech to bring everything crashing down.
For those struggling to remember, the highlight of his 1991 patter at the Royal Albert Hall was saying his company’s earrings were ‘cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long’ (see box below).
Shares in the H Samuel and Ernest Jones owner promptly collapsed, 2,500 shops had to shut and Ratner’s career as a big-shot retailer was effectively finished. He was left clinically depressed. Now a sprightly 70-year-old, he makes his money giving speeches about that fateful day in 1991. ‘I’m much poorer now, and I’m a nicer person,’ Ratner says. ‘But I’d much rather be richer and far more arrogant.’
As if to prove his point, he leans forward and tells me to inspect the date on the label of his black suit. It says 1987. ‘I bought this suit 30 years ago for £600, which was a lot of money at the time,’ he says. ‘I have to say, back then, I thought I might be able to afford rather more suits by this point in my life.’
That famous cr*p speech
Ratner’s fall from grace came after his speech to a crowd of 4,000 in April 1991 at the annual conference of the Institute of Directors in the Royal Albert Hall.
He said: ‘We do this nice sherry decanter, it’s cut glass and it comes complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler could bring you in and serve a few drinks on. And it only costs four pounds, ninety-five pence. People say to me, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s total crap.’ We even sell a pair of earrings for under a pound. And some people say that’s cheaper than a prawn sandwich from M&S.
‘But I have to say the sandwich would probably last longer than the earrings.’
He must have been filthy rich in the 1980s to feel poor today. Companies pay about £4,000 to book him for a single speech – and Ratner makes as many as 40 or 50 a year. So he’s still raking in six-figure sums each year.
‘Giving speeches is the only business that is 100 per cent profit,’ Ratner says, with a little more of the honesty that made him famous. No wonder, then, he claims he’d never have tried to build a retail empire under the conditions shops face today.
‘I’ve always regretted that I lost my job, but I wouldn’t like to be in that business now,’ Ratner says.
‘I thought those prime H Samuel jewellery shops I opened in the 1980s would always be a money spinner. But they’re not any more – they’re empty.’
His plan to save the high street is simple: don’t bother. Instead, turn the whole lot into houses. Retailers would be far better off focusing on out-of-town malls and retail parks or simply going online, he explains. Ratner says: ‘When you go to the high street you have to walk around in the pouring rain, and there’s nowhere to park.
‘If you have the customers, the rents and business rates aren’t too expensive. But sales are going down now. The high street is the weakest place to be, so it’s inevitable that you can’t expect everything to survive. The answer is to turn it into residential.’
Ratner’s assessment of the big names which are struggling is brutal. ‘There isn’t a chance’ of Debenhams, House of Fraser or other mid-market chains surviving the competition from Amazon, he says.
John Lewis will be the last to leave, according to Ratner
‘Amazon is a phenomenon and sometimes you just have to accept the inevitable,’ he adds. ‘Even John Lewis is struggling now, so people who are not as efficient – like House of Fraser and Debenhams – they are going to go to the wall.’
He shakes his head at the mention of John Lewis – the ‘hero’ of the retail industry. Ratner thinks the company has no chance of lifting itself out of the mire with its current strategy of offering ‘experiences’ in store – such as cookery classes, hair treatments and nail salons. ‘John Lewis will be the last one to go,’ he says. ‘It is such a great retailer, they’re beautifully fitted out, they have wonderful staff and they’re still very competitive.
‘But everyone thinks you’ve got to offer stores with pilates and prosecco. It won’t work because you cannot afford to do that in locations where you’re paying high rents. Those rents are based on selling high-margin products, which are very lucrative.’
I’m much poorer now – and a nicer person
Ratner knows a thing or two about margins, after all: selling products for far more than they cost was at the core of his infamous remarks in 1991. He took over his family’s jewellery business in the 1960s when he was 34 and turned it into the largest jeweller in the world. At its peak, profits hit £121million. Its brands – H Samuel and Ernest Jones – are still highly successful, but the group has been renamed Signet.
Ratner has far more time on his hands now he has been effectively outlawed from the business world, unable to use his own family name to relaunch into the jewellery industry. He says exercise helped to pull him out of depression when he was fired by his own chairman.
Ratner’s self-confessed obsession with social media has made him an expert on the brands and businessmen that outrage the public most often. He says Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, for instance, has the most ‘Ratner moments’.
But he adds that the public are now so easily outraged that the negativity fades as quickly as it appears. The public can find a new target within the hour.
‘There’s so much controversy, and there’s more social media than ever before,’ he says. ‘When I made my mistake, that story stuck around for quite a while. But what happens now on social media is a story dies very quickly, because there’s always a new story to replace it.’
Then, ever the provocateur, he adds: ‘All of these people think they are having their Ratner moment – but they never are. The only Ratner moment was me.’
Ratner, 70, folk hero
Lives: Cookham, Berkshire.
Family: Wife and four children.
Music: Emily Jane White, American folk singer, below.
Book: Music And Silence by Rose Tremain.
Hobbies: Long bike rides and walking his labrador.
Emily Jane White, American folk singer
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