Home Entrepreneurship The Man Who Destroyed His Multi Million Pounds Empire In Seconds

The Man Who Destroyed His Multi Million Pounds Empire In Seconds

by Keerat

Gerald Ratner

Interview & Article by Ninder Johal

This interview is also available in a Podcast on the Nachural YouTube Channel 

Podcast also available on Apple & Spotify

 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Gerald Ratner’s well-known speech delivered at the Albert Hall for the Institute of Directors. It was a speech that would change both his career and the future of his business.

Coming from an entrepreneurial family, Ratner was surrounded by business. He recalls how his parents were always ‘talking shop’. He would often join his father in visiting the six retail outlets during school holidays from the age of eight. He was always interested in business from a young age. Ratner found himself not engaging with the education system. He describes how he had ‘just scraped the eleven plus’.

 

Despite that, the headmaster saw his potential and vowed to take him on. Ratner’s time in education appeared to be cut short, he often stumbled because of difficulties with concentration during lessons, leading to poor performance on his exams and ultimately exclusion. It appeared that his talents lay elsewhere.

‘After being expelled my father sent me to a crammer school’, where education was condensed and independent, but Ratner describes how he would ‘gamble all the time’ instead of attending school. At the age of fifteen, Ratner left school and entered the family business as a shop assistant in Woodgreen.

‘My father was diagnosed with a brain tumour; it had changed his personality’. He had undergone a personality shift from being ‘pleasant and caring’ to being ‘short-tempered and irrational’. He began to make ‘ridiculous decisions and the business started suffering’, so much so that it was entering loss-making territory.

‘The writing was on the wall’. As Ratners was a listed company 20% of the business’s shares were purchased by a larger rival: H. Samuel.

In view of the increasing ill health of his father, Ratner manoeuvred himself into the top seat and set about resurrecting the business.

‘The jewellery business is all about having a good buyer who buys the right jewellery at the right price – it’s all in the product’.

 

Ratner fondly tells us about his buyer: Terry Jordan. He managed to source products at fantastic prices but his father had for some unfathomable reason fired him.

‘Interestingly, the business was doing well when Jordan was the buyer, and not so well when he wasn’t.’

 

Suddenly, Jordan became a threat, as he opened up a ‘shop next door’ and was expanding fast (having grown to 10 stores) purposely encouraging customers to compare prices. Fortunately, Ratner proposed a solution, ‘the simple thing was to get him back’. But, it wouldn’t come cheap. ‘We were doing so badly’ that the shares stayed at 27p, Jordan was offered 2 million shares priced at the current share price of 27p.

When he came back ‘our fortunes began to return’ and even started to increase by coupling Jordan’s low price buying with aggressive marketing in the form of posters and reduced prices. ‘Everything had a line through it’, this was a rarity in the 1980s, particularly within the jewellery industry but the customers loved it’.

This meant that Ratner’s continued to do well whilst rivals were suffering. Armed with increasing sales and market share, Ratner felt he could take on one of his greatest competitors – H. Samuel.

‘I went to the Chairman, I managed to persuade him to merge with me’. Now bolstered with an acquisition, the number of stores within Ratner’s hands increased from 150 to 600 stores overnight. The aggressive marketing techniques were now even more successful when utilising H. Samuel’s brand name and locations.

Their profits soared from £4 million to £60 million in one year, meaning they were now taking more money per square foot than any other retailer.

 

‘I have always taken risks’. Having spent a lot of time in betting shops, risk was a part of Ratner’s DNA. ‘It’s what gives you the biggest buzz in business’, ‘there’s nothing more exciting’. This was particularly true when buying H. Samuel (a business three times their size). I always knew that if we bought H. Samuel, we were in the big league.

‘The thing that had excited me was making this [Ratners] the biggest jewellers in the world’ and this did indeed require risk and confidence. ‘It’s all about selling, that’s what business is’.

 

Working from a young age within the family business (particularly behind the counter) made Ratner realise how important selling is. The interaction with customers is absolutely fundamental to securing successful business performance.

The Jewellery sector is a unique one, often characterised by specialists;

‘You don’t have to be a jeweller, but you need to know the jewellery trade’.

 

By gaining 20 years’ worth of experience from being involved with the family jewellery business, Ratner knew the business well. ‘I bought in a financial director when we got big and he didn’t know anything about the jewellery business’. ‘He was useless to me’.

 

 

Ratner is equally vocal about other deficiencies of financial directors. ‘They cause negative selling’, by adopting an ‘anti-profit’ attitude, often demonstrated through investment cuts. Ratner believes that selling is about ‘throwing money at things’ and not ‘asset-stripping’. He believes in investing in marketing campaigns, training staff, the importance of customer services and incentive schemes – all things that he considers are an anathema to accountants.

‘I was invited to do a speech at the Albert Hall’ with 6000 attendees, alongside the President of South Africa and Former Chancellor Norman Lamont.’ He wanted to make this speech entertaining so included ‘jokes’ that had worked in the past with other audiences. He had often joked that his decanters were ‘crap’ and that M&S sandwiches ‘lasted longer’ than the earrings he sold in his shops, jokes which previous audiences were happy to lap up…

But on this occasion, red top newspapers such as the Mirror and the Sun ran riot with headlines condemning the remarks. Ratner’s speech had been labelled the ‘worst mistake of all time’ by The Sun. Sales plunged 10% just a week afterwards, returns were on the increase, the business was making a loss of £100 million and Ratner was replaced by the former Chair of H. Samuel.

‘It felt like daggers going into my stomach… It was indescribable’.

 

Becoming a prisoner of his own home, Ratner wallowed in grief and self-pity for seven years chained to anti-depressants. ‘I started cycling to pass the time and I began to think clearly’. Ratner realised the true benefits of exercise (this was rare in the 1990s) and opened up a health club.

It turns out the selling of memberships was easier due to Ratner’s reputation; he was able to capture everyone’s attention and managed to secure 850 memberships (this gave him the cash to raise the rest and buy the club). The health club was sold two and a half years later for £4 million.

‘I didn’t want return to my situation of staying at home’. Half of the money acquired from the sale of the health club was reinvested into a venture of selling jewellery online;

‘we took sales to the £25 million mark’. ‘I knew I couldn’t replicate what I had from scratch… it takes years’. ‘The internet allows you to have a million shops instantly, we could have a shop in every town instantly’.

 

This venture wasn’t always strong. ‘Nobody was buying anything on the internet in 2001’. Eventually, in 2003-2004, after years of struggling, sales started to increase. But, this didn’t stop competition coming through. Marketing budgets kept creeping up to the point where competitive pricing was no longer a viable option.

As for the future of the high-street, Ratner adopts a negative view. ‘I don’t believe the high-street has a future’. He reflects on his time within retail, ‘when Next opened up next to us on Kensington High-Street, our sales went up’. ‘You rely on your neighbours to do well’.

The move from physical premises to digital premises has simply been catalysed by the pandemic. ‘Young people live on their phones’. Seismic changes to the high-street are likely to follow suit, ‘we can’t influence’ buying behaviour, ‘we simply have to follow consumer trends’. But he caveats with his final thought – any business with the right products and right customer experience will flourish

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