Gerald Ratner: How a diamond geezer got on his bike and invented himself a new start

A day in the life of the chief executive of Geraldonline.com
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The Independent Online

6.30am

Getting up is no longer the ordeal it once was for Gerald Ratner. In the dark days and months after he was drummed out of the Ratners jewellery empire for calling one of his products "total crap", even waking up was a struggle some mornings for the man with Britain's biggest mouth.

"I could have laid down and died," he admits, " but I didn't." It took years for the pain of losing everything his family had built up - his father started Ratners with a single store in Richmond in 1949 - to subside, but these days the jewellery tsar has a spring in his step once more.

7.10am

With Johnnie, 14, the youngest of his four children, bundled off to catch his school bus, Mr Ratner has breakfast at his home in Bray, of Fat Duck fame, and lazes around until it is time for his daily bike ride. Fifteen years after he joked that a pair of earrings from Ratners had a shorter lifespan than a Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich, Mr Ratner says he still has a sharp sense of humour. But when it comes to his cycling, he turns deadly serious.

His bike, a £5,000 Trek Madone that is just like Lance Armstrong's, was his saving. He is fanatical about his daily blast on two wheels around the Berkshire countryside. The 32-mile, traffic light-free route he has mapped out skirts Ascot and Windsor and takes about one hour and three-quarters. "I'm always trying to beat my time," he says, displaying hints of the sort of compulsive character that has been both his making and almost his breaking. He only cracked the gag about the prawn sarnie because it was true.

10.30am

He showers and sets off for his 45-mile drive to work. He sips coffee on the journey, which he likes to ensure takes bang on 45 minutes (again, that obsessive quality comes out). After a decade in the wilderness when he dabbled with various consulting projects and owned a health club in Henley, Mr Ratner is back in the jewellery business. Three years ago he set up an internet jewellers - geraldonline.com. But if he pulls off his current dream then the jeweller extraordinaire could find himself back on the high street in time for Christmas.

Mr Ratner is working on plans to mount a bid for H Samuel, the jewellery chain that was once part of his Ratners empire. He has hired BDO Stoy Hayward to advise him on a possible £100m offer for the chain. His chances of succeeding look better after the news on Thursday that two private equity groups, Apax Partners and KKR, are considering a £2.3n bid for Signet, the world's biggest jewellery group that owns the UK chain. He figures that Apax and KKR will want to ditch H Samuel if they pull off their bid to focus on the jewels in the Signet crown: its Kay and Jared US-based chains.

Trading figures from Signet this week showed that interim like-for-like sales were down 1.6 per cent at H Samuel, which Mr Ratner believes shows the chain is "a mess". He is itching to repeat the trick he pulled off with H Samuel in 1986, when he turned a business in trouble into one making £60m within 18 months. He thinks Signet has been wrong to try and pitch the jewellers at the upper end of a market when it should be "slugging it out at the bottom with the likes of Argos and the department stores". His infamous lack of tact rears its head when he called H Samuel a "downmarket retailer with shops that don't look anything but mass market". But he means well, going on to call the brand "marvellous". Ditto the staff and the store locations.

1pm

Running his own business means Mr Ratner is his own boss. Which means he takes life at his own pace. He spends his mornings going through sales figures and tinkering with the website. The beauty of a cyber-based shop group is that retail makeovers come cheap and it takes minutes, not months, to give the site a different look or overhaul its prices. Geraldonline started out selling mainly watches and gold jewellery but now majors in all things sparkling. Bling is big business and the website's half-carat diamond rings are big sellers. Four-fifths of its sales are diamond jewellery, which are supplied directly from a Bombay factory by the group's Indian partner SB&T. This lets Mr Ratner operate on paper thin margins but still make money.

Since moving his offices from Beaconsfield to Bicester - he needed a bigger site after cutting ties with Goldsmiths Group which had handled all the website's distribution - Mr Ratner has taken to frequenting the town's factory outlet village at lunchtimes. He particularly favours Carluccio's, the chain of eponymous Italian cafés. Bicester is a bargain hotspot and Mr Ratner says he often nips into Ralph Lauren for a cut-price shirt or two. After all, he has had to watch his pennies after losing his £600,000-a-year salary and watching his £6m fortune evaporate.

He doesn't sound as if he misses working in London, although he still pops up to the capital from time to time. He cycles the 30 miles on days he does have London meetings - "when I used to drive I was ready to punch someone when I got there" - and still goes to the same sushi joint, Sakura on Hanover Square, for lunch: sea urchins and scallops are a favourite.

4pm

As well as his bike, his family helped to get him through his lowest moments. Not least because Moira, his second wife, threatened him with divorce unless he quit moping around the house. These days he repays them in two ways: twice a week he knocks off early to pick his son up from school in Reading, and two or three evenings a week he disappears to give what has become a lucrative sideline in after-dinner speeches. (After spending so much time at home, he says his family are "quite happy" that he's out so much in the evenings.)

The subject of his talks? That famous gaffe. "Everybody likes hearing about other people's mistakes. It must be schadenfreude. I talk about the ups and downs of my life, which I can do now because geraldonline is very successful." He says the talks are "quite self-deprecating", which gives away a lot about the man he has become in the course of reinventing himself.

"People always think about that 20 minutes in the Albert Hall," he says, referring to the location of the 1991 Institute of Directors' conference where he said H Samuel could only get away with selling cut-glass sherry decanters at £4.95 a pop because they were "total crap". But he tells his various audiences: "That's unfair because I've made lots of other mistakes as well!"

He commands £10,000 a throw for his appearances, but says that considering he destroyed £500m of value from the family business he has some way to go before he will have recouped all his losses. He still adlibs much of his speeches but says he now "tries to think before opening my mouth", although he confesses he can't do anything about his sense of humour. "I'm still trying to turn this enormous legacy into a positive and I feel like I'm winning." (And that's not a joke.)

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