Q. What happened after you lost everything?
A. Nobody would touch me with a bargepole. I wrote to 20 companies offering my services, and received 21 rejections. Both the chief executive and the finance director from one company wrote to me saying: “We can’t believe you’ve got the nerve to ask us for a job, and please don’t mention to anybody that you did.”
I was a pariah. No one could get as low as me. I’m the one who made the biggest mistake of all time. Every week, there’s a Google alert about somebody who’s “done a Ratner”, and I have to live with that.
Q. How did you recover?
A. I had given up. I’d lost the will to work or go into business. I didn’t have any money. I was lying in bed watching Countdown, the highlight of my day, and my wife couldn’t tolerate me in the house any longer.
I ended up spending all morning in the gym and all afternoon cycling – so I went into business by opening a health club. I put an ad in the local paper saying I was going to open a gym. I signed up 850 direct debits, and finally a bank lent me the money – and I sold the health club for £3.9 million two-and-a-half years later.
The most exciting time was selling the memberships myself. For the first time in five years, I was back out there. There was still something left in me. I was overcoming adversity and I was winning.
Q. Why did you choose the internet as a route back into the jewellery business?
A. I had no choice because I had 2,500 high-street shops, and I lost them. The internet was a way of getting fairly big fairly quickly. We’ve had seven years of unprecedented growth, and I deserve a bit of luck after everything I’ve been through.
Q. What’s the secret to Gerald Online’s success?
A. I’m spending 18% of my sales on search engines, which is more than I’ve ever paid a landlord. It’s all about traffic, as only 1% of your visitors are going to buy something [the site gets three million hits a week].
You’ve got to offer a good service, or people won’t come back to you. In my case, I’ve got to carry a lot of stock because people want things within 24 hours. People assume on the internet they’ll be able to buy at rock-bottom prices, so your prices have to be lower.
I get so many statistics that I fine-tune every day towards what people want. Currently, 80% of our customers want diamond rings, so we tailor our stock towards that.
Q. What can the travel industry learn from that?
A. Sell what makes a profit on the internet, which may mean specialising in just a few destinations. If you offered only five destinations in a shop, you’d be laughed at. But I’ve learnt on the internet not to be a universal provider. We’re not in business to offer a service to the public; we’re in business to make money.
I think the answer is to have a presence on both the high street and the internet if you really want to do well. I like to be absolutely safe before I invest in a holiday.
The internet is great for that because it shows videos, and you can get a guided tour of a hotel so you know what to expect. You can tell a lot just from the lampshades.
Q. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from your ‘crap’ experience?
A. Life is difficult. Things don’t happen in business often the way you expect them to. I don’t feel hard done by. Somebody told me it’s done me a lot of good.
I’m no longer arrogant, no longer trying to conquer the world, and I’m a nicer person. I was always tense, always in a hurry, always trying to meet ridiculous targets. Maybe it’s because I’m less of a businessman than I once was.
In your 30s, you have tremendous drive, you’re unpopular, you’re miserable – but you’re making a fortune. Now I’m very popular, I’ve got lots of friends, and I run Britain’s largest online jeweller, but I’m not making a huge profit – so you can’t have it all. But I am happy now. I appreciate things much more second time around.