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Before long the businesses – which had had 2,500 stores and was worth £125 million – was in receivership. “You can’t put a gloss on it. I would still be running it but I lost my money, I lost my job and almost lost my mind.
“Doing the speeches like the Ideal Business Show in Windsor is what made me come to terms with it. Trying to fight it just made it worse in a way. But if you can’t beat them, join them. I have a laugh about it. I couldn’t make it much worse than it was.”
As main speaker at this year’s Ideal Business Show, Ratner recalls stories of dramatic ups and downs in his business career like no-one else.
In April 1991 Gerald Ratner was rich and successful boss of a family business he had taken from obscurity to household brand. A few weeks later he was penniless and depressed. Now he is the UK’s leading online jeweller.
The family business he had joined from school as a teenager was a small chain of mid market jewellers. Between 1984 and 1991 he took it from a loss maker to a £125 million success story selling more downmarket products.
But addressing the Institute of Directors at the Royal Albert Hall, Mr Ratner’s joke about his company’s products proved catastrophic. His words that night were: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, "How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap."
Business went off the end of a cliff. Mr Ratner said there was little he could do to fight the collapse of his firm once the publicity had taken hold.
“I didn’t do anything.” he said. “I just gave up. I didn’t want to play any more. I was like a leper. Nobody wanted to be associated with me. It was the worst possible scenario as you can imagine. Going from hero to zero is very unpleasant.
“Having fought the depression by cycling to keep his mind occupied, Mr Ratner continued the two-wheeled therapy and now starts the day by waking at 8am, cycling a tough 28 mile route from home in Maidenhead, through Ruscombe, Binfield, Bracknell, and Ascot before returning home then leaving for work at Bicester at 10.30am.
Cycling long distances when he was at his lowest, caused him so much pain he was unable to think of the misery of his lost fortune.
“It really did get my mind sorted out. I did all my best thinking on my bike. It dealt with the depression better than any anti-depressants.
”With no-one prepared to invest in him he eventually started a fitness club in Henley, attracting investors through a local newspaper advert. He later sold that business for £3.9million which helped him back into the jewellery trade.
“I had literally started it with nothing. That got me back on my feet,” he said. Through Gerald Online he is now selling cheap jewellery again, employing a team of eight, and he plans to acquire a small chain of shops to combine internet with traditional shopping. He has tried unsuccessfully to buy back Signet, the current firm which owns the Ratner name.
But the irony of the name had helped him. Type it into Google and after a few results referring to gaffes and howlers Gerald Online appears. The idea was everyone had heard of him and could find him on the internet. He said “There are 60 million websites out there nobody ever hits. That was the thinking. This was a rather  unusual strategy but sometimes these things do work. Certainly the publicity has helped me.  If I was Fred Bloggs no-one would know the name.”
Along with the profit from the health club, the internet has given him a much quicker route to recovery. He added: “Back in my day if you wanted to be a millionaire you had to work in a business for 25 years.”  His peers these days afford him a ‘grudging respect’ because he has bounced back and for someone with some big mistakes to learn from, his message to SMEs is really about realism and practicalities.
“A lot of people have got weird and wonderful ideas but the most important thing is the execution.  It’s not enough to have an idea. You don’t have to go for something particularly new, just do it well. I would also say, like when you look at me, you can never predict the future.” That, he said brings in finance, another area crucial to success.
“You’ve got to be well financed because you are going to burn cash initially. My business was burning cash but I had cash to survive. A lot of people might give up. You are going to struggle initially.  Make sure you have a bank manager who is fairly understanding.
“Banks will respect you if you have something that is a realistic proposal.”
He does not envisage a return to the Ratner’s name on the high street but he is enjoying his humbler new beginnings, combined with work on the after dinner speaking circuit. He said: “It’s much sweeter second time around. I’m not a megalomaniac like I was in the 1980s. But that was the 80s”.
The Ideal Business Show will be the biggest event of its kind in the Thames Valley calendar.
B2B Portfolio had staged six exhibitions across the country but went out of business earlier this year. With B2B Wales, ready to go ahead in June and with 100 exhibitors already signed up the Ideal Business Show came in, honoured deposits and the show went ahead with Ratner topping the bill.
The Ideal Business show Thames Valley will be the third under the new organisers. Will Allen, sales & marketing director of Ideal Business Show said, “It is quite clear from the feedback and support that has been shown by exhibitors, partners and sponsors that this event is needed and wanted by the SME marketplace.