Ratner makes 'hideous' return to the scene of his biggest gaffe

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The Independent Online

Gerald Ratner said he felt a sense of "closure" yesterday after he returned to address the Institute of Directors annual conference, the scene, 14 years ago, of the biggest gaffe in British business history, when he calledhis jewellery business products "crap".

Gerald Ratner said he felt a sense of "closure" yesterday after he returned to address the Institute of Directors annual conference, the scene, 14 years ago, of the biggest gaffe in British business history, when he calledhis jewellery business products "crap".

He was made to relive, in detail, the speech he gave to the IoD in 1991 and its consequences - it wiped £500m off the stock market value of Ratner jewellers, the family business he had built up to a 2,000-shop chain with annual turnover of £1.2bn.

"I'm just wondering why I came back," he began. "It has brought back hideous memories. Things were going so swimmingly. I came here and everything went wrong." Mr Ratner described himself as an "idiot" and he took full responsibility for the consequences of his speech. But he was angry that people still say that he destroyed the Ratner jewellery chain. And he hoped that the success of his new venture, an online jewellery retailer, would allow his public image to move on.

At the IoD convention in 1991, Mr Ratner, after describing the cost of one of his products, said: "People say to me, 'how can you sell this at such a low price', I say because it's total crap."

The remark was picked up in the press, Ratner sales fell through the floor and Mr Ratner subsequently stepped down as chief executive of the business - by then forced to change its name to Signet.

"It was a very, very, difficult time," Mr Ratner said, speaking at London's Royal Albert Hall. "But I'm not blaming the IoD or the press. It was me who put my foot in my mouth."

He said he'd had to change the company's name, close down shops and restructure the business. He managed to return it to profit before he quit. He said he was upset when some of the "serious press" still wrote that he left the business in "total ruins".

" One minute we had 50 per cent of the market and everything was going well. The next minute I was a tabloid punch bag.

"I had the all-time PR disaster. There's no way to deal with it. What I did was so ridiculous, you cannot make excuses."

Mr Ratner said he is now beginning to fight back, through the GeraldOnline venture he set up 18 months ago, which he said was "successful". Asked how he'd describe the jewellery he now sold, he ducked the question but said that his products were now much more likely to cost £500, rather than the £5 items he sold at Ratner.

He said that he no longer had the "ambition" to be super-rich and just wanted to "make a living", noting that friends had told him that he was now a "nicer" person. He added: "I would rather be not nice and rich, than nice and poor."

Speaking to The Independent afterwards, Mr Ratner said he "felt what Americans call closure" following his appearance on the stage at the IoD meeting. He said he hoped to return to the City with GeraldOnline, which was on course to float in two years.

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