Ronson's risk.

A game of chance (for one player). Marvel as Gerald Ronson plays the system! Gasp as he goes directly to jail! Applaud as he bounces back to build his fortune.
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The Independent Online

One of the best ways to learn what property tycoon, risk-taker and convicted fraudster Gerald Ronson is all about is to take a peek into his office in London's Marylebone Road. It is packed with memorabilia from his extraordinary career. On one wall hangs a picture of Gail III, the 186ft yacht he bought in the Eighties when he was among Britain's richest and flashiest businessmen. Another wall is decorated with pictures of his four daughters. He even has a copy of a newspaper cartoon making light of his six-month spell at Her Majesty's pleasure in Ford Open Prison.

One of the best ways to learn what property tycoon, risk-taker and convicted fraudster Gerald Ronson is all about is to take a peek into his office in London's Marylebone Road. It is packed with memorabilia from his extraordinary career. On one wall hangs a picture of Gail III, the 186ft yacht he bought in the Eighties when he was among Britain's richest and flashiest businessmen. Another wall is decorated with pictures of his four daughters. He even has a copy of a newspaper cartoon making light of his six-month spell at Her Majesty's pleasure in Ford Open Prison.

But the biggest clue to what this 61-year-old businessman is about sits on his desk. Here is a framed copy of a quote by former US president Calvin Coolidge: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; genius will not; education will not. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

Mr Ronson is abrasive, straight-talking, sometimes intimidating and foulmouthed but, above all, utterly determined. A former colleague says: "There is no one I know who is so single-mindedly determined as Gerald. He's been through thick and thin but has not lost a single scrap of his grit and drive."

This, perhaps, helps explain Mr Ronson's extraordinary roller-coaster life. After leaving school at 15, with the words of his teacher, "You'll never be anything Ronson", ringing in his head, the son of second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants gradually built up a £1.5bn property empire from scratch. He named it Heron International, after his late father Henry.

The fruits of his labours came as standard-issue business tycoon toys: a luxury yacht, a private jet (with the call sign G-GAEL after his wife Gail, a former model), a fleet of expensive cars and a giant house. Then, suddenly, his life was turned on its head when he was implicated in the Guinness share-rigging scandal and jailed.

On release, Mr Ronson faced near-bankruptcy but he staged a remarkable recovery, summoning a delegation of some of the world's richest men to bail him out. Today, Mr Ronson is back at the top of his game with plans to build a £300m skyscraper in the City of London and develop a network of 20 entertainment complexes across Europe.

And he has become one of the UK's most popular businessmen. Earlier this year he was voted "property personality of the year" by the readers of magazine Property Week, despite terrorising scores of hapless surveyors with his gruff temperament for the past 30 years. Greg Nicholson, head of investment at surveying firm CB Hillier Parker, says: "He is one of the best businessmen of his generation - tough but fair and loyal to those who've shown loyalty over the years."

Because of his near-celebrity status, one of the first questions people ask after a meeting with Mr Ronson is: "What is he like?" The first impression people have of him today is his straightforward, no-nonsense approach. Despite moving in high business circles he still has a deep, flat "Norf" London accent. He has made no concessions with his appearance, either. He still sports the Eighties property developer look, with his trademark monogrammed blue shirts and large gold spectacles pushed square-on, and he is often found puffing a hefty, jutting Havana cigar. But his fleet of Ferraris, Rollers and Jaguars has been traded in for a more understated silver Mercedes.

He's still partial to the odd expletive, a habit that has spawned hundreds of Gerald Ronson stories. One popular tale regularly told in the wine bars in London's Mayfair, a popular hangout for property types, dates from the early Nineties when Heron was in financial trouble.

A source familiar to Mr Ronson says: "When Heron was in trouble he was called to a difficult board meeting full of sullen bankers and accountants. Gerald opened the door and saw all the people lined around the table looking for their pound of flesh. He walked over to the sash window in the corner, opened it up, stuck his head out and shouted: 'If there are any more f*****g bankers and accountants out here you may as well join this lot'.

"Later, he got up, dropped a bundle of keys on the table and said, 'I'm going for a piss; if you don't want me to stay on running this company then take the keys'."

Mr Ronson is not to everyone's taste and the memories of some who have known him since the early days are not as fond. One merchant banker says: "He's got a bully mentality. He deliberately tries to intimidate people by cultivating a hard man image. It just isn't necessary."

Those who deal with him today, say the overriding impression they get of him is that he is straight. Simon Cooke, head of property at Deutsche Asset Management, which last year bought an £85m portfolio of commercial properties from Mr Ronson, says: "If he says he will sell and you say that you'll buy there is no mucking around. When we were doing the deal we were, for reasons out of our control, a couple of weeks out of sync. Ronson yelled at me, but I knew that because we had shaken on it he was holding the deal for me. I would much rather deal with someone like him than some merchant banker who doesn't know the rules of the game."

Describing Mr Ronson as "straight" after Southwark Crown Court dispatched him to prison in 1990 may seem like a contradiction in terms. He was convicted for his part in the £400m Guinness share support operation where he had agreed with the company's boss Ernest Saunders to buy shares in Guinness to maintain its price while it launched a £2.8bn bid for Distillers. In return it was agreed Mr Ronson would be paid a £5.2m fee.

Ronson supporters claim it was his naivety and weakness for a big deal - not a deliberate attempt to break the law - that landed him in trouble. When the scandal broke he owned up to his part andhanded back his fee, for which Saunders never forgave him.

Today, Mr Ronson and co-defendants former millionaire stockbroker Anthony Parnes and financier Jack Lyons are trying to clear their names. Last month the European Court of Human Rights found their trial was in breach of their human rights. The judges in Strasbourg said the prosecution was wrong to use self-incriminating statements by the three men during their trial.

Lord Mishcon, of Mr Ronson's firm of solicitors Mishcon de Reya, says: "This judgment confirms what has been a widely held view that Mr Ronson suffered a grave injustice as a result of the Guinness trial." Mishcon de Reya is understood to be considering an application to the Court of Appeal and a referral to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. A source close to Mr Ronson says: "Gerald isn't doing this because of the compensation. He's doing this because he wants vindication."

His critics say although the trial may have been unjust, the evidence in the subsequent Department for Trade & Industry report proved Mr Ronson was implicated in share manipulation. He served six months of his 12-month

sentence in Ford, regarded as the "Club Med" of the penal system, earning £3.20 a week washing up and respect from fellow inmates, as well as the prison officers.

When he was released, Heron was a mess. Before he went inside, he had invested in Prima, an Arizona-based savings and loans association. Exacerbated by the collapse in property values, the company went into liquidation. Mr Ronson immediately told his creditors Heron was £1.4bn in the red. Eventually, in April 1994, he reluctantly hoisted a "for sale" sign over his business.

It caught the eye of investment banks Goldman Sachs and Schroder Ventures, which put together a joint bid. But there was a flaw. A former Goldman Sachs banker involved in putting the bid together says: "When we were looking at Heron, we wanted to buy it without Ronson. In retrospect that was a mistake. We underestimated Ronson's staying power. We would only get Heron with Ronson."

Steven Green, the Samsonite luggage tycoon, rescued Heron with a £145m bid backed by, among others, Rupert Murdoch, Microsoft's founder Bill Gates, Oracle boss Larry Ellison, disgraced former junk-bond trader Michael Milken and telecoms tycoon Craig McCaw.

Mr Ronson's stake in Heron was diluted to 5 per cent but he managed to negotiate a £500,000-a-year salary and a generous pension plan, as well as a car and chauffeur.

Today, Mr Ronson's shareholders must be pleased with what was then a high-risk investment. Heron is riding high on the peak of the property cycle. Its investments are estimated at £300m and it is understood the company's bor- rowing is relatively low. In the UK, Mr Ronson is working on property developments which, when completed, will be worth £500m. The biggest of these is the 37-storey skyscraper at Bishopsgate.

Unlike most other UK property companies which develop in London, Heron isn't afraid to build speculatively, putting up a building before signing a tenant. This is what Mr Ronson plans to do with his City skyscraper. It was designed by US architects Kohn Pederson Fox, but has yet to gain planning permission, although it has been given the thumbs-up from the Government's architecture tsar and fellow property developer Stuart Lipton.

Mr Ronson has three other strands to his business empire. There is Heron Land, a subsidiary of Heron International, which owns more than 6,000 plots of land which are gradually being released for mainly residential development. He also owns Snax 24, a chain of petrol stations, which Mr Ronson describes as his "Saturday job". The business turns over £150m a year.

But Mr Ronson's biggest venture and gamble is in continental Europe, a territory most UK property developers have left alone in the past five years. He plans to invest £1bn to build a network of 20 leisure and entertainment centres, branded "Heron City". The concept borrows from the family entertainment centres in Florida and Los Angeles, and includes cinemas, shops, restaurants, and health and fitness centres.

First to open was at Las Rozas, outside Madrid, this March. By 2004, Mr Ronson wants to have all 20 complete. This could be a critical date for him. Well-placed sources say he is planning more than just to collect the rent from these entertainment colossuses.

Mr Ronson is said to be considering two plans. One would be to float Heron City on the stock exchange. Analysts say that could give the firm a market capitalisation of £2bn. The other plan would be to securitise Heron City, essentially Heron borrowing money against the rental income from Heron City by converting it into a tradable security.

Either way, Mr Ronson - said to be personally worth £70m - and his shareholders would begin to realise the value of the assets.

The year 2004 could be critical for Mr Ronson in other ways. In the early Nineties, when Heron was in trouble, Mr Ronson famously said his plan was to "stay alive until '95 and go to heaven in '97". Asked last year what his plans were, he said: "I will review the situation when I'm 65."

His 65th birthday will be in May 2004, and some in the property industry expect Mr Ronson to use Heron City to establish succession at the helm of his property empire when he does retire. Two names have been touted as future Heron International bosses - his daughter Lisa and Heron's develop- ment director Peter Ferrari.

Lisa works as Heron's marketing director, with day-to-day responsibility for the Heron City schemes. She joined in 1998 from BZW, where she spent seven years in equity sales, latterly based in New York. She is thought to have inherited her father's drive.

Peter Ferrari, while overshadowed by his boss's larger-than-life profile, is highly regarded by Mr Ronson. Mr Ferrari is almost the antithesis of Mr Ronson, smooth, slim and well-spoken. He learned his trade at London & Edinburgh Trust - the property company formerly owned by millionaire financier John Beckwith - and moved to Heron in the early Nineties. Despite their obvious differences, observers say they get on remarkably well.

But there are others who believe Mr Ronson would find it near-impossible to stop broking deals, planning giant developments and terrifying surveyors. "Heron without Ronson would be a very different animal," says one close associate.

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