Whatever happened to Gerald Ratner? You must remember him. Gave an important speech at the Albert Hall, London, England, on 23 April 1991 before 6,000 members of the Institute of Directors, along with two other VIP speakers - President de Klerk of South Africa and Norman Lamont of 11 Downing Street. Now, be honest, could you have guessed on that fateful day who would end up with a Nobel Prize, who would lose his job and who would lose his career?
The day before, Mr Ratner's firm had declared record profits of pounds 112m. He was the world's biggest jeweller with 1,300 shops in the UK and 1,000 in the USA, employing 25,000 people, earning pounds 660,000 a year, and with shares in the firm worth pounds 6m. For seven years in a row, profits had doubled. What a phenomenon: darling of the Stock Exchange, pin-up of the business pages, retailer of the Eighties; so, ladies and gentlemen, let's give him a big hand. Which they did. In the audience was his father, Leslie, founder of the firm, come to clap politely, and his wife, Moira, come to observe, hoping dear Gerald would not get too carried away.
He had written his speech, very serious and dignified, and distributed it to his fellow directors, as one should. Ratners, after all, was a public company. Then one of his fellow directors said, why not put in a few jokes. So he added a couple, but never got round to distributing the final version. Why should he, he thought. He'd made these jokes in public before, at several business gatherings. One had even been reported in the Sun and the Financial Times.
Now, we'll take these 'jokes' carefully. Be prepared not to laugh. 'People ask how we can sell our decanters so cheaply . . . because they're total crap.'
Yes, not very funny. The joke, apparently, is in the telling. When addressing a business audience, he would pause, knowing they were expecting him to say they're cheap because we cut out the middle men, or we are such brilliant salesmen.
Next joke concerned a pair of Ratners earrings at 99p, the same price as a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich. 'But they won't last as long.' Boom boom.
When he first told it, he'd said the earrings lasted longer, but was misquoted in the press, so decided their version was funnier. 'In speeches, I always used anything that would get a laugh.'
Ah, such innocence. Can any joke in the history of the universe, business section, have had such dire consequences? Ratners became a laughing stock. There was a loss of half a billion pounds as shares dropped from pounds 4 to 7p. The following year, Ratners reported a loss of pounds 122m. Several thousand employees lost their jobs. In November 1992, Mr Ratner lost his.
Now, a year later, Mr Ratner is preparing to talk about himself for the first time since The Fall; just as soon as he takes off his cycling clothes and puts on a respectable shirt and tie. He'd been for a two-and- a-half-hour ride on his Swatch racing bike, through the mud, along the Thames, listening to Van Morrison on his Walkman. Is it some jewellery joke, riding a Swatch? Nope. Swatch, yes the watch people, happen to make pretty good racing bikes, so he thought he'd have one.
He rides most days. Can't stand golf, too old at 44 for serious football, buggered his back skiing. Cycling seemed a reasonable alternative for getting rid of energy and aggression. His wife fears he's become as obsessive about cycling as he used to be about Ratners. It has helped his weight. Down to 10 stone 10, which is good, considering he was up to 13 stone at the height of his mega- tycoon, mega-worrying period.
Now he's sitting in his plush living room in his six-bedroom house at Bray, near Maidenhead. Looks boyish still, not at all arrogant or bombastic, as once he was. He's kept silent about what happened for two reasons. One, he was duty-bound to keep shtum and not make things worse for the new people trying to resurrect Ratners. (Sorry, the holding company is now called Signet. They dumped his family name, and probably eventually any shop still called Ratners, oh the ignominy). Two, he's waited until he has a new venture he wants to talk about.
Let's finish off Ratners first. Goes back to his grandfather, Philip, still alive aged 96, who was a successful watchmaker in St Albans. Father Leslie and two uncles started the jewellery chain, which had 24 shops when young Gerald joined, aged 16, from Hendon Grammar School. He'd left school rather hurriedly. Oh, something about a remark at the head's expense, suggesting during a funeral that he, the head, would be better off remaining in the cemetery. Funny how Gerald's jokes have rarely been appreciated.
All he'd ever wanted to do anyway was work in the family shops; that and play poker with other well-heeled Jewish boys in north London.
Aged 34, he'd learnt the ropes and become a director; the firm now had 130 shops, but he wanted to be boss. Not inevitable he would take over, as there were other rivals, other Ratners. While his father was abroad, he told his fellow directors that his father wanted him to take over, which was a white lie, and told his father, on his return, that the directors had suggested it, another fib. 'Well, something like that,' he now says, smiling.
Once in control, he went pop - down-market - creating a world of permanent sales, hand-written posters, Day-Glo exclamation marks. He pinched the concept from a Newcastle jewellery shop doing enormous business selling flash trash.
In 1986, he took over the H Samuel chain, three times the size of Ratner, with 350 shops, then in 1990 paid pounds 200m for 500 Kays shops in the US. At the time of the Albert Hall speech, his brokers were predicting a profit of pounds 210m for the year ahead. So, was it just his silly joke that caused the collapse of the empire?
'If I'd made my speech in 1987, with the same effect, then certainly the joke would have been totally to blame. We were doing so well, there could have been no other reason for any collapse. By 1991, well, who knows? The recession was already started. We couldn't have kept doubling profits. Perhaps both things caused the downward slide - the joke and the recession. The press picked up the joke, kept it going.'
Are you blaming the press? 'I'm not. I think I would have got away with it, ridden the recession, if the press hadn't picked it up, but it was totally my own mistake. I lost something I'd given my whole life to. I'd worked 24 hours a day for 25 years.
'For 18 months I tried to hang on, pull the business round. It was a good business with a loyal staff, and we gave great value. Forget the 99p earrings. What about the Seiko chronograph watches at pounds 64.75 - when Seiko's trade price was pounds 67.50?'
In the end, he left. Forced out? 'I wasn't pushed, nor did I jump. I just felt it was in everyone's interest to go.' In his termination agreement he could start another jewellery business - but a maximum of only four shops in the first year. Part of him wanted to bounce straight back, part was in shock. He decided to do nothing, say nothing. He took his wife and two children, aged four and two, to Barbados on holiday, then stayed at home for the next six months.
You must have learnt who your real friends were? 'Yes, all the cliches came true. I found I had some very supportive friends.' And some people who didn't want to know you any more? He thought hard. Come on. Your fall must have pleased some people? 'No, all the directors were supportive. They could see the pain I was going through.'
He lost his notional pounds 6m shares - getting only pounds 100,000 for them when he left - but he still had his own house and savings, enough in theory to live on, if not quite in the old style.
He found it hard, in those early months, having no support system. He didn't know how to put petrol in his car. Staff had always done that. He struggled one whole day to unlock a garden hose. Staff had always sorted out such stuff. On the other hand, he found he had time to read books - those hardback things with pages in - from the Alan Clark diaries to Greek tragedies. Come again? One of his daughters by his first marriage is a drama student. She thought he'd enjoy a Greek drama, as a change from his own modern drama.
'I've just been in Paris and did something I never thought I'd do. I went to an exhibition, the Barnes paintings. Even more amazing, there was a queue - and I waited, in the rain, for almost three hours. After 20 years cocooned in a business empire, I'd joined the real world.'
Welcome back, Gerald. Any other pearls you've brought with you? 'Sitting at home all day eating chocolates and watching videos doesn't make you happy. Only work makes you happy. I am a businessman at heart, but next time I won't have tunnel vision. For 25 years, I wasn't even available for my family on Sundays. I was arrogant; always in hurry. Now I think I'm humbler, more reflective, more cheerful.'
Right, so what's next? Out came a glossy brochure for Tobacco Dock in London's docklands, which will reopen next April as a centre for factory shops. He won't say how much money is involved, or his personal investment. 'I don't have to, thank goodness. It's a private firm.'
Factory shops have existed for some time - retail outlets located at the mill or the factory where a product is manufactured - but the idea of grouping them in one centre is imported from America. At Tobacco Dock there will be 75 shops - all brand names, he hopes, offering designer goods to the public at bargain prices.
Surely the retail trade will fight back and block it? He says not. The factory shops will not be direct rivals as they will be selling past season stock, cancelled orders, slow sellers. 'At present, a firm like Chanel might burn old stock rather than have it sold cheap to remainder merchants and risk the wrong sort of people wearing it. With their own factory outlet, in a complex with other leading names, they can control what they sell off.'
He is so convinced the idea will succeed that last week he found himself planning, in his head, a second centre - before the first has even opened. Then he stopped himself. 'The old Gerald would have done that. I used to find it abhorrent to wait, giving a knee-jerk reaction to everything. Now I've changed.
'In future, there will be no more jokes either. I'm going to join the clan of boring businessmen. I got away with being outspoken as a child, as a teenager, and in the Eighties as a businessman. It's a shame, I know, having to sound responsible and careful, but it is the Nineties. So if you have any more questions, I'm afraid the answer is . . . No Comment.'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies