It's another concrete bid from nice guy Gerry

Abigail Townsend charts the rise, fall and revival of Gerald Ronson, the rough-diamond property tycoon who has come back from jail and financial ruin to make an offer for builder Crest Nicholson
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Just scratch the surface of the property sector and people will queue up to give an opinion on Gerald Ronson. With the possible exception of "understated" or "upper class", there is not an emotion or description that the tycoon behind last week's approach for housebuilder Crest Nicholson does not rouse.

Just scratch the surface of the property sector and people will queue up to give an opinion on Gerald Ronson. With the possible exception of "understated" or "upper class", there is not an emotion or description that the tycoon behind last week's approach for housebuilder Crest Nicholson does not rouse.

He's a bully; he's as straight as they come; he's a rough diamond. He can spot a money-making deal at a hundred paces; he is devoted to charity work and adores his family (wife Gail, a former model, four daughters and a clutch of grandchildren). It's rags to riches, north London, tantrums and cigars all the way (with a spell inside to add zest).

He demands respect as a businessman and, from those on his side of the table at least, unstinting loyalty. Attempts to sum him up range from "there isn't anybody better at understanding the property and planning business", to "he scared the shit out of me".

Stories and anecdotes abound. There is one where he reportedly drove his daughter, Lisa, who works for him, to tears in a crowded meeting. Or the time when he was trying to nail a deal with "a suave, sophisticated Frenchman". An insider recalls: "The Frenchman was being very calm and realised it was winding Ronson up. Ronson, meanwhile, was getting more and more irate, shouting, 'but you WILL do this, you WILL do that,' as if it should be a privilege to work with him. We did the deal, but there was such a clash of egos."

Yet few seem actually to dislike Ronson. Simon Cooke, now the head of property at the real estate investment firm Hotbed, remembers striking a £90m deal with him while working for another company. He recalls the time as fraught but sings Ronson's praises: "He's a character - the cigar-chopping, megalomaniac authoritarian, all those sorts of things. But he's a very good businessman and has an ability to spot and finance deals - and that's 90 per cent of the business."

Ronson stands out in a sector known for larger-than-life characters, and only the churlish - or foolish - would write him off. This is a man who was embroiled in the Guinness scandal and, in 1990, served six months at Her Majesty's pleasure as a consequence. A man born to second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants who built up a £1.5bn property empire - and then lost it all in the property crash of the early 1990s.

Yet neither prison nor crash has kept him down. He has rebuilt the business, Heron International, and now, just before turning 66 in May, is back in the spotlight with an approach for Crest.

Heron, which is thought to have a value of around £1bn, is considering an offer worth up to £479m. The catch would be an attractive one. Crest has a large land bank with outline planning permission and is known for winning large housing projects from local authorities.

Heron, which already has a 23 per cent stake in Crest, wants access to the books. Management says the indicative approach is too low and has refused.

"The management could not recommend at this level. It's not credible," says Stephen Rawlinson, an analyst at Arbuthnot Securities. "Housebuilders have got to want to be bought. You cannot do it hostile. It can be bought, but at the right price. And right now, that's up to Ronson."

Even if Ronson does not take control, however, he could still be a winner. As Rawlinson points out, he could be trying to flush out another buyer; should Crest change hands for 500p a share, for example, Heron will make £128m.

Such a canny move would be the latest development in a busy few years. It really has been some comeback.

When the Guinness scandal broke, Ronson admitted to buying shares - in return for a £5m fee - to prop up their price during the company's £2.6bn bid for Distillers.

He has since tried to clear his name, but at the time he returned the fee and took his punishment. He was released half way through a 12-month sentence.

His supporters claimed it was an inability to resist a big deal, rather than criminal tendencies, that got him involved and most seemed to agree (although Ernest Saunders, the then Guinness boss who was also jailed, has reportedly never forgiven him). The late Lord Boardman, for example, the former NatWest chairman, arranged a series of dinners for Ronson upon his release to get him back on the circuit.

Such an open-armed welcome was, in its way, extraordinary. But Nigel Boardman, Lord Boardman's son and a leading corporate lawyer, says it was not surprising. "His behaviour throughout [the scandal] had been good. He had been a tough businessman but not a tricky one, so he did not have a queue of enemies waiting to put the knife in when he came out."

He had also been in the business a long time and was known for his charity work, which was how he'd come to meet Lord Boardman.

After leaving school aged 15, Ronson went on to found Heron with his father two years later. He built it up into an empire. It wasn't just traditional real estate that interested Ronson, either; one of his first deals was to launch Heron Service Stations. He is credited with bringing self-service petrol stations to the UK during the 1980s. He also surrounded himself with the trappings of wealth: a yacht, private plane and a garage of fast cars.

Yet when he came out of prison, the property market was in freefall and Ronson faced bankruptcy. Heron went into liquidation with debts of £1.4bn and Ronson is thought to have lost around £650m. Yet some of the world's wealthiest men rode to his rescue. A £145m deal was put together by the Samsonite luggage tycoon Steven Green, with Bill Gates, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Rupert Murdoch and the disgraced junk-bond dealer Michael Milken (whose brother, Lowell, took the chairmanship of Heron) also investing.

Ronson's stake was whittled down to 5 per cent. Yet Nigel Boardman says he stood up well to the trials and tribulations, especially during the restructuring, when Lord Boardman was appointed chairman by the banks. "I spoke to [my father] and he said he was absolutely excellent. He had his empire taken away, had my father imposed upon him and he could have been difficult and bitter. But he wasn't. He was absolutely straight. He had his views, but he accepted he wasn't in charge."

Since that time, Ronson has been buying back equity in the company, whose developments include the Heron City leisure complexes and the planned Heron Tower, which will be one of the Square Mile's tallest buildings. He is even still in petrol stations, with the family-owned Snax 24 turning over £168m last year.

Ronson is perhaps best summed up thus: for every story illustrating a nasty trait, there's another where he is the good guy. Such as this. One of Ronson's most trusted advisers turned 50 a few years back and he threw him a surprise party, a dinner at the Savoy. He told the birthday boy to get to the hotel immediately for an impromptu meeting with US investors. Which was mean enough. But then he arranged for his driver to pick him up - and get stuck in traffic. "Just imagine him - late, sweating, poorly prepared and with Gerald on the telephone screaming away," recalls one party member. Finally he got to the hotel and rushed in, only to realise he had been set up.

A domineering tycoon with a fierce reputation? Definitely. But a tough-talking, fast-dealing businessman from the wrong side of everything who can also take the mick out of just such a reputation? That, at least, may be a first.

WHY THE CITY IS SCARED OF HOUSING

Fear. This is the one reason explaining why the City has largely steered clear of the housebuilding sector for the past decade.

In recent months, companies such as Persimmon, Taylor Woodrow, Bovis and Wilson Bowden have posted healthy results on the back of sold sales. But still the City ignores these groups. Bumper profits are rewarded by a blip on the share price graph - and no more.

The reason for this is memories of the early-1990s property crash that wiped billions off institutions' accounts. Against a background noise of experts predicting a slowdown in the housing market - most recently, the Treasury declared its belief that prices would fall 1 per cent this year - many fund managers are experiencing unpleasant flashbacks to the 1990s.

But the fears are largely unfounded. A decade ago, the property sector was packed with small, highly geared firms run by people who really shouldn't have been at the helm. When the market went sour, these companies collapsed in dramatic fashion. The one good thing that the property crash did was to weed the flaky businesses from the sector.

The crash also led to some consolidation among the housebuilders, but still they want for a FTSE 100 company that would at least give the industry a badge of respectability among nervy fund managers. The long-held hope in the industry is that Persimmon will bid for Taylor Woodrow, but there are no signs of an imminent move.

Today, many analysts believe that the best thing for housebuilding would, perversely, be a slowdown in the market. "The sector needs to prove that it can survive a difficult period without falling over. If profits were to drop from £100m to £80m instead of from £100m to zero [as happened in the early 1990s] then this would give housebuilders more credibility in the City," says one housing analyst.

If this is correct and the various predictions of a real slowdown come true, then the housebuilding sector may soon lose its stigma.

Clayton Hirst

Comments