Belfast Telegraph

Gerard Ratner begins journey back to the top

After a rollercoaster ride which began with his infamous gaffe about his jewellery store's products, Gerald Ratner has begun a journey back to the top

By Clare Weir

He's best known for the after-dinner speech that ruined his career and brought down a successful jewellery firm.

But Gerald Ratner is now enjoying a new lease of life, ironically, as an after-dinner speaker.

Mr Ratner was a guest at the 25th anniversary conference of the Northern Ireland Region of Shopping Centres at the Culloden in Hollywood last Friday, detailing his "rollercoaster journey back to the top".

The NIRSC represents the shopping centre industry in Northern Ireland and provides training for managers and their supporting staff.

Gerald Ratner joined the family jewellery firm, Ratners, in 1965 and took over as boss in 1984, turning it into an empire of 2,000 shops, with 25,000 staff and annual sales of £1.2bn.

However in 1991, while addressing an Institute of Directors conference at the Royal Albert Hall, he told an audience of 5,000 business leaders that some of the firm's products were "crap".

His gaffe wiped £500m off the value of the company, he saw his salary slashed and he was eventually sacked – by the chairman he had hired.

He now jokes that he is often named top of the pile in TV or newspaper polls of the "world's worst mistakes" – but has now turned his infamy of "Doing a Ratner" into an advantage.

"I think people would rather listen to someone like me, with all the disasters and calamities, than someone who is turning over £2bn a year but doesn't have much to say for themselves!" he said.

His new firm GeraldOnline turns over £25m and is the number one UK online jewellery retailer.

Mr Ratner points out that Northern Ireland Ratners outlets were the best-performing stores in the UK – and that his confidence in a market that many retailers avoided during the dark days of the Troubles has stood him in good stead.

"The Newry store was bringing in £50,000 a week – and it was tiny. People were coming across the border, there were constant queues," he said.

"The fact that we came here and others didn't gave us a huge competitive advantage. We were not just big in Belfast, we were also very busy in the smaller towns, in places like Ballymena and Enniskillen."

He said the success of his new business was growing. "GeraldOnline is now moving into India. Not many people have credit cards or internet access and we have to carry a lot of cash, which can be dangerous.

"There is also a lot of bureaucracy. This puts our competitors off investing in India, but not us. I see it as a challenge and I like a challenge.

"My board said I was mad to open in Northern Ireland when we did, but we had some of our best profits from Northern Ireland."

In his autobiography The Rise And Fall... And Rise Again, Mr Ratner tells how he reached his lowest point standing in a Belfast shop weeks after his disastrous speech and just after a mouth cancer scare.

But he said that on the whole, his visits to Belfast and Northern Ireland were some of his most enjoyable.

"I used to deliver the Christmas Eve stock in person," he said.

"Even in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a great buzz about the place. That moment in Belfast was when I hit rock bottom, feeling like I had let everyone down, but it was from there that I began to work my way back up."

Belfast Telegraph