Interview: Gerald Ronson
He has bounced back from a prison sentence and the loss of almost £1 billion. Now 70, how does the property tycoon and community leader spend his time? By looking for new battles
If you ever wondered what it takes to become a multi-millionaire, Gerald Ronson’s weekend timetable is a salutary lesson.
From Monday to Friday, he puts in 12-hour days. Then at the weekend, Ronson — who at the age of 70 still heads his Heron International property empire — wakes up early for what he calls his Saturday job.
This entails leaving home at 7am to visit 12 of his 74 filling stations, which means a 500-600-mile round trip. At each garage he checks out cleanliness, that the products are placed in the correct aisle, that none of the pumps are broken and that the bins have been emptied. If he spots a sandwich which has passed its sell-by date, he “blows up”, he says.
So, given his age and the fact that petrol stations are not even the biggest part of Heron’s business, is it worth the trouble? Ronson, looking trim and exuding energy in his central London office, contemplates the question for a moment.
“Some people may think I’m completely mad, but for me this is a form of relaxation. I’m on the road at 7am, but I’m not doing the driving. I have a lot of papers that go into my briefcase — I call it my weekend reading. Over the course of 12 or 14 hours I visit a dozen sites and see my managers and cashiers who in some cases have worked for me for 10 to 15 years. Most of them are pleased to see me. I think it means a lot to them that the governor can take the trouble to come around to see them.”
Yet, Ronson maintains, it has never really been about the money. “Am I money motivated? I want to be successful and, if things are successful, they make money.”
Today, all is calm in the world of Gerald Ronson. His company is weathering the recession well, and he has the love of his devoted wife Gail, their four children and six grandchildren. Indeed, it only needs a glance at the photos which adorn his cigar-scented office to realise how important family is to him.
But as he relates in his newly published autobiography, Leading From The Front, things were not always so. In a nightmarish period in the early 1990s, Ronson lost first his freedom and then a fortune of almost £1 billion, following the collapse of his interests in the United States. These were two events which would have defeated a lesser man, but Ronson cared passionately for his company and for his reputation, and was determined to take the blows and to emerge undefeated.
At the now-famous share-trading fraud trial in 1990, Ronson was convicted, along with Guinness boss Ernest Saunders and business partners Jack Lyons and Anthony Parnes. He remains convinced that he was framed — his campaign to clear his name was backed up by the European Court of Human Rights which ruled in 2000 that the trial had been unfair. “I don’t think I did anything wrong,” says Ronson. “Neither did anyone else at the time. It was interesting that the trial was on the front page of every newspaper yet the decision of the European Court got half an inch at the bottom of the page.
“It was a politically motivated trial — a show trial. Some people say that it was antisemitic — three of the defendants were Jewish and one [Ernest Saunders] was assumed to be Jewish even though he wasn’t.
“If you look at who ended up in court and who should have been in court that’s a whole other story. They threw the four disposable people to the lions and the establishment members were left untouched. In life, you come through things like this and it makes you stronger and hopefully wiser. If you don’t learn from it, you’re stupid.”
He was to spend six months in Ford Open Prison in Sussex. It was not a pleasant experience, but Ronson is nothing if not a survivor and he soon learned to exploit the system.
“People say an open prison is a joyride. Well, I can tell you it’s not. But if you can survive and be a lion in the jungle, why couldn’t you survive in a little zoo down in Sussex. I wasn’t there out of choice, but you have to make the most of it. You keep a smile on your face, you behave like a mature, responsible individual and you’ll be surprised that even in prison, you can get things — fresh linen, new clothes, all sorts of things.
“You have to realise that most people in there are stupid — not everyone, but a lot of them. You have to have faith and confidence in yourself.”
Within a month, Ronson had got his cell redecorated and cleaned, had got hold of a new mattress and extra furnishings, and was running business classes for fellow inmates.
And he found that his friends and acquaintances stuck by him, including some of the most eminent figures in Anglo and world Jewry. He received a phone call from the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and met Binyamin Netanyahu, at the time a minister in Shamir’s government, while on a day-release for a medical examination.
Ronson recalls: “They wanted to make sure I was all right. I had great loyalty from everyone. Hugo Gryn, Julia Neuberger, Immanuel Jakobovits and Jonathan Sacks all came to see me. Apart from Gryn and Neuberger, no one seemed to be able to talk to me. I’m friendly with Jonathan now but he found it very difficult to know what to say, which I found surprising.” By this time, Ronson, not a particularly religious man, was reciting the Shema every morning — as he has done ever since — the result of an encounter with a rabbi while he was awaiting sentence. The rabbi was insistent he wanted to see Ronson, and when eventually he was allowed in, he persuaded him to lay tefillin. Ronson was initially reluctant but was impressed that the rabbi, a complete stranger, had taken the trouble to see him.
He writes in the book: “When we were done, as I was unwinding the tefillin I felt this jolt through my body… I suddenly felt strong.”
If the trial and prison were bad, the near loss of Heron was, says Ronson, “far worse”.
“Not only did I lose £1 billion of my own money, 45 per cent of which belonged to my foundations, but my reputation and my business, which I spent 40 years building up, was hanging on a knife edge. My reputation was damaged by the Guinness case, no doubt about that, but it wasn’t damaged irreparably. I had to rebuild Heron and, thanks to the investment of new American partners, I was able to do that.”
One of his friends was not so fortunate. Ronson still speaks warmly of Robert Maxwell, the Jewish newspaper tycoon who, after his death in 1991, was revealed to have been using his employees’ pension funds to pay off company debts.
“He was a character,” says Ronson. “I got him into the Jewish community. I got him to be chairman of Israel bonds. When I first flew with him to Israel, big tears were running down his face. I asked him what he was crying about. He said: ‘I should have come here before, I should not have denied my Jewishness.’ I introduced him to Shamir and he went from stone cold to red hot about being Jewish. I never did any business with him but we were friends — he reminded me of my father. He was entertaining — a bull of a man.”
Business is not everything to Ronson, though. As one of the Anglo-Jewry’s leading philanthropists, he is passionate about the community and has been a driving force in many projects, particularly the Community Security Trust, which he chairs, and the JCoss School in north London, scheduled to open in 2010, for which he has obtained funding from donors and the government.
“I was blessed by the good Lord with the ability to make money and I’ve always felt strongly all my life that it was important to contribute,” he says. “I also regard myself as a good asker. I’ve never been shy to ask for money — I think the best askers are the best givers. I lead from the front. It’s essential that our community is strong and secure. If we can’t be secure living as Jews in this country then we have a problem.”
His excitement at the opening of JCoss is palpable, particularly because of the struggles he has endured to get the project off the ground. He feels that the school, which will operate an inclusive admissions policy, will be a force for good in the community. “If anyone thinks that was easy, to co-ordinate with the left and right of the community, and to get planning consent, it was not. It was like climbing Everest. There are a few loonies on the right of the community who don’t want it to happen, but 90 per cent of schools won’t take children who are not halachically Jewish. The doors must be open to those who want to send their kids to Jewish schools. I had to raise £10 million. Thank God I raised it last year, not this.”
Ronson’s commitment to education did not extend to his own schooling. Young Gerald was an unwilling pupil, and could not wait to join his father, Henry, in what was then the family furniture company (the name Heron comes from a combination of Henry and Ronson). “I left school at 14-and-a-half but I would have left at 14 if I were able,” he says. His first job was sweeping the floors at his father’s factory, but by 17 he had been given the job of overseeing the building of a new plant. By the time he was in his mid-20s, and getting known for his direct, abrasive style, he had expanded the firm into property development, and made himself a millionaire in the process.
Although his fortune is a quarter of what it once was before the crash of the early ’90s, he is still estimated to be worth more than a quarter of a billion pounds. Current projects include the Heron Tower, under construction in central London, which he claims will be “the best office building in Britain, if not Europe”.
And he is still known for his directness. “When I talk to politicians, they say: ‘You know, Mr Ronson, you have a reputation for being very direct and straightforward’. I tell them that if you ask my opinion, you want a straight answer. I think they like talking to me… but not too often.”
BORN: May 27, 1939 in east London.
FAMILY: Married to Gail for over 40 years. Four daughters.
CAREER: Joined father’s furniture business, Heron, at 15. Expanded into commercial property. Recovered after collapse in 1990s. Current big project: the Heron Tower office building.
GUINNESS AFFAIR: In 1990, jailed for role in a share-trading fraud. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled the trial had been unfair.
COMMUNAL ACTIVITIES: Chairman of the Community Security Trust. President of the JCoss school project.
‘Gerald Ronson: Leading from the Front’ is published by Mainstream