New phase beckons in the great Gerald Ronson comeback

The survivor of the Guinness scandal is setting his sights high in the property sector
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a hard-man who went to jail over a major City scandal, Gerald Ronson has a remarkable reputation for being a very straight-dealing businessman. Even more extraordinary is the comeback Mr Ronson has made since his release from jail in 1991, when he found his Heron International empire in ruins.

It has emerged over the last few days that he has taken a stake in the quoted housebuilder Crest Nicholson, which may mark a new chapter in the business career, of Mr Ronson, now 64.

He has said for some time that he is looking to pull off a big corporate acquisition, so the £400m or so that he will need to buy Crest Nicholson may be it, or possibly the beginning of a string of deals.

Like other canny operators, he has seen that the lowly valuations the stock market is giving to "real" businesses such as construction and retail, present a great opportunity for buying assets on the cheap. "We are sitting on a very substantial cash pile and we want to make a big move to make the most effective use of our capital," he said a few months ago.

Heron is thought to have a property portfolio worth about £1bn. And, after a long planning battle, it has received permission to build the ultimate monument to the rejuvenation of Gerald Ronson: Heron Tower, which will loom over the City as one of its tallest buildings.

A business associate who has known Mr Ronson for 30 years says: "He's a terrific fighter. When he's in a corner, he's always fought back."

The son of second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants, Mr Ronson was a major property developer from the 1960s onwards, pioneering in many ways. He led the UK sector into Spain and France. His Heron International became the biggest private company in Britain.

Then, in the property bust of the late eighties/early nineties, he lost it all. Like other highly leveraged companies, the drop in the market and jump in interest rates was unsustainable. He was, by then, embroiled in the Guinness share-rigging scandal and was one of four businessmen convicted in the affair. Sentenced to a year in jail and fined £5m, he served six months in Ford Open prison.

One of the constant features of Mr Ronson's career, which has given him the edge, is a fantastic network of loyal friends and contacts. The roll-call of business figures who testified to his qualities in court, and the group that rescued Heron, is truly spectacular. Steven Green, the Samsonite luggage tycoon and a key ally, bought together new backers for Heron, including Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and the Oracle boss Larry Ellison.

Mr Ronson holds an annual gathering at the Savoy each year for the movers and shakes in property and retail, to thank his network. His social circle includes Richard Desmond, the media tycoon and a close "norf" London neighbour.

His conviction - which he has always contested - has not dented his place in the business community. He did his time and says he feels no bitterness. He got right back on the social circuit and got on with business. One property player says the conviction is regarded largely as a "joke" by others.

"I've got my life from the day I walked out of Ford Open Prison," Mr Ronson has said.

Those who have worked with Mr Ronson over the years say his determination is overwhelming. He is able to take a long-term view on business decisions. One contact said it was sheer pride that drove him to recreate Heron. "He is a seriously proud man," he said.

At the end of last year Mr Ronson said: "In the last 16 years I have come through all the war zones. To rebuild Heron I had to deal with 89 banks and 15,000 bondholders. I could have run away and retired. I would probably have made more money pursuing my own interests, but instead I chose to rebuild the company's reputation and my own reputation."

He accepted a 5 per cent stake in the refinanced Heron and worked with the new backers breathing down his neck (he has since bought more of it, with his holding now reckoned to be some 20 per cent).

Mr Ronson's vision and maverick nature is also always evident. He now wants to build a massive City office block, at a point where office vacancy rates are reaching crisis levels.

Over the last few years, he has developed a new kind of leisure attraction on the Continent, called Heron City. These are complexes that combine retail, eating, drinking, cinema and entertainment on a huge scale. There are Heron City schemes up and running in Madrid, Barcelona and Stockholm. He is looking for new sites and has been scouring the UK for suitable land.

Perhaps mindful of his unhappy experience in the office sector, Mr Ronson seems convinced that leisure is almost recession-proof.

"Leisure is less affected by a downturn. It is not like the office market. If anything, when people read about bad news they tend to go to the cinema or go bowling and forget about it," he has said.

Despite once pronouncing that "floating companies is for poor people", he is thinking about listing these leisure centres, once more exist (though he will never float Heron).

Property operators say that people want to do business with Mr Ronson because, though he a formidably tough negotiator (given to blunt, expletive-rich language), he's a man who keeps his word. A natural deal-maker, a handshake with Gerald Ronson is a guarantee that a deal will get done on the terms agreed - other prominent figures in the sector habitually try and change the terms of a transaction after it seems to be agreed.

Mr Ronson's approach is very hands-on, immersing himself in every detail of a leasing arrangement. Partners say he really "knows his stuff" as a businessman and he has stuck to what he's good at. There is no pomp or pretence and the super-rich lifestyle he led in the eighties has been replaced by a considerably less flash image (though he is thought to be worth some £180m today, perhaps a quarter of the fortune he once had).

A family man, his 35-year marriage to Gail, a former model, is at the centre of his life. He has four daughters, one of whom, Lisa, works at Heron and may one day run the company.

Mr Ronson is scathing about the many "spivs" that populate the property sector and the lack of young talent to replace his generation of developers. Mr Ronson seems set to show others the way to make money for a long time yet.