Can Ratner regain his old retail sparkle?

Business Profile: He lost his jewellery empire after calling a product 'total crap'. Now the former high street king is making his comeback bid

A tanned but slightly crumpled looking Gerald Ratner is sitting in the plush coffee lounge of The Dorchester Hotel in London. The man who was forced out of the Ratners jewellery empire after calling one of his products "total crap", in a speech to the Institute of Directors 12 years ago, is worried the staff will not let The Independent's photographer take his picture in the hotel.

"I'm having my daughter's wedding here in November," he says. "Tell them I'll cancel it if they object."

There are 270 guests attending the wedding of his 29-year-old daughter, Susie, to a successful lawyer. I ask him how his speech is coming along.

"I've got a few ideas," he says with a smile. "My daughter has asked to vet it, though. She knows what I'm like. There are one or two stories I'm thinking about using but I'm not sure."

Then he tells me one anyway, a tale about a family member that is probably not the kind of thing you'd like aired at your wedding and certainly not the kind of story you would like to see in a national newspaper the month before.

The following day there is a message on my answering machine. It is Mr Ratner. "I was feeling slightly nervous about that story I told you and wondered if you would mind not putting it in," the message goes. "But you can say what you like about me."

I ring him back on his mobile and his wife answers, saying he has just gone out. Without revealing the story I ask her to tell Mr Ratner that, not to worry, I won't use it. "Oh God, that sounds like Gerald," she says.

So there you have it. Gerald Ratner still putting his foot in it after all these years. He says he has learned lessons from the mistake that cost him control of the family business, but has he really? He says he tries to stop himself from making wisecracks at sensitive moments but blurts them out all the same. And you can't help but like him for it.

Now 53 he is lean and tanned from his obsession with cycling, though his body language is slightly hunched and his voice is rather quiet and sombre. He is not be the big-hitting entrepreneur he once was but this former high street titan is now attempting one of the boldest moves of his colourful career. In September he is making an audacious jewellery comeback with a new internet business called GeraldOnline.

He had wanted to call it Ratners-Online but was stopped by legal action from Signet, the renamed Ratners empire that has tried to distance itself from the bad joke it feels the name became. That scuppered plans for a £4m Ofex float so he has been forced to look elsewhere for backing.

But why do it, I ask? Why put himself through all this when he knows it will mean dredging up that speech in which he also made a reference to Ratners earrings costing less than a pound, "which is cheaper than a Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich", he told his audience back in 1991, before adding: "But I have to say the earrings probably won't last as long."

He takes a deep breath. "You have to do something and I've been doing jewellery all my life," he says. "I had a health club business [in Henley where he lives] and sold out [for £3.6m] before the market collapsed. I'm too young to retire and looked at what to do next."

He says his name will help attract attention to his website which is being launched with the backing of an Indian company called SB&T International and Goldsmiths, the privately owned UK jewellery group. The Indian company will source about 25 per cent of the products and is putting up the starting capital in return for a 60 per cent stake. Mr Ratner will hold the remaining 40 per cent.

Goldsmiths will handle warehousing, order taking and dispatching as well as a returns policy in which customer will be able to take back goods to Goldsmiths stores for refunds and repairs.

The website will offer about 700 products at a substantial discount to high street prices. Mr Ratner is aiming at 18 to 30 year olds, with the majority of products priced in the £40 to £300 range.

The website, whose launch has been timed to take advantage of the vital pre-Christmas selling period, is just the start of Mr Ratner's plans for a new jewellery empire. He is talking to Richard Desmond's media group about taking a slot on one of his digital channels. "They have an adult channel and need something to show during the day," he says.

The two sides are currently at loggerheads over whether the shows will be live or recorded. Mr Ratner wants them to be live so they can take a product off air quickly if it isn't selling. The Desmond camp disagrees, saying live programming is too expensive.

Mr Ratner hopes to be on a home shopping channel by the spring and if the idea works his next move would be back on to the high street. However, this would not be through his own stores. "I'm too old now and it would take too long," he says. "But the idea is to get a big slice of the jewellery market so I would probably look at selling the idea to Marks & Spencer or a supermarket."

He admits this is his last chance to stage a comeback in the market he made his own in the 1980s. "If it fails, I'm finished," he concedes. "If I can't make this work after being in the business all my life, it would be a difficult pill to swallow."

It will be a long struggle back up for the man who joined the family firm at 16, working his way up to the top and building Ratners into a huge business which once had 2,000 shops including H Samuel and Ernest Jones in the UK as well as Zales in the US.

I ask him about the reaction of his family as Ratners was a family business founded in 1949 by Mr Ratner's father with a single store in Richmond, Surrey. He says the family made a lot of money through shares when Ratners was at its peak and bear no grudges. "They feel I was hard done by the press, so they don't blame me anyway."

In the darkest days after this ousting he says his music and cycling saved him. "I've got a racing bike and I'll do 30 miles in an hour and a half. I put my Apple iPod on and just listen to music."

Rock music is his thing, he says, listing REM as his favourite as well as Radiohead, Moby and an artist called Jennifer Terran. "She's got this album [The Musician] which is just the best album ever."

In a sense he seems to have found a kind of peace with himself, with his own way of coping with one of the more brutal demises of British business history. Happily married for a second time he has four children including Susie, an actress-turned-BBC producer who appeared in the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Even so, when he gets up to leave it is difficult to avoid the impression that this former king of the high street somehow feels driven to rebuild what he lost, rather in the way Sir Rocco Forte started all over again after losing control of the family hotels empire. It will be quite a story if he pulls it off.

GERALD RATNER - GLITTERING PRIZES

Title: Chief executive, GeraldOnline

Age: 53

Pay: £75,000 from GeraldOnline. He has given up all other consultancy work.

Career: Joined family firm at 16 and worked his way up. Made Ratners a 2,000-store giant including H Samuel and Watches of Switzerland in the UK and Zales in the US. Left in 1992. Worked on Tobacco Dock retail park in London before setting up a health club. Sold it for £3.6m.

Interests: Cycling, rock music, family (married with four children).

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