GERALD RONSON: tough tycoon reveals all

PUBLISHED: 15:05 27 August 2009 | UPDATED: 16:24 07 September 2010

FOR the first time in his 55-year career, it seems that tycoon Gerald Ronson is hinting that retirement may be hovering somewhere, albeit very faintly, on the horizon. Although it is not surprising for most men of 70 to be talking about leaving the workin

FOR the first time in his 55-year career, it seems that tycoon Gerald Ronson is hinting that retirement may be hovering somewhere, albeit very faintly, on the horizon.

Although it is not surprising for most men of 70 to be talking about leaving the working world behind them, anyone who knows Mr Ronson will regard even a hint of his departure as a revelation.

A committed workaholic, who still puts in 90 hours a week, he balances the hard graft with being one of Britain's biggest philanthropists, giving more than £35million of his personal wealth to charity and fundraising more than £100million in donations from others.

Add his full-time work as a father, grandfather, husband of 42 years and Jewish community leader, and Mr Ronson doesn't come across as a man who likes to rest.

But in our interview prior to his appearance at the Ham&High's Literary Festival next month, he gave me the biggest nod yet that he doesn't expect to keep up this gruelling schedule forever.

"Heron Tower [set to be London's highest skyscraper and currently being built by Ronson's company Heron International in Liverpool Street] is the best building under construction in the UK," he says.

"Although it's not the reason I built it, I hope my grandchildren will look at it and be proud. There are currently five major projects in the company and when I finish these I'll be 75 or 76. Put it this way - I am not planning buildings to start in 10 years' time."

When those grandchildren do look back over the life of their grandfather, no matter when he retires, it certainly won't be an ancestral tale that fails to absorb.

Ronson leaves a huge legacy in business. He currently has a 23 per cent stake in Heron, which has built dozens of buildings across Camden and Westminster and the rest of London, and a filling station empire worth £60million.

Within the Jewish community he is chief executive of the Community Security Trust and president of the JCoSS school development, which is completing a new state-supported Jewish school in Barnet.

Most recently he has entered the literary circle with his memoir Leading From the Front.

"It is me - you can hear me talking - it is for real," Ronson says, paying homage to the work of author Jeffrey Robinson who wrote it with him.

Indeed the "me" of the book is certainly the voice I am sitting opposite, in his Marylebone Road office.

With the odd expletive thrown in here and there and old-fashioned observations like: "Why would I want a computer? My brain is a computer," his voice reveals what he refers to as his east London "street fighter" roots.

However, the attention has not tended to focus on how a furniture-maker's son from the East End spent the last half a century turning his father's business into a property powerhouse, but on the six months which almost pre-ceded its complete collapse.

In 1990 hen was jailed as one of the 'Guinness Four' in a share-trading fraud.

Since then the European Court of Human Rights has declared the trial unfair and Mr Ronson has remained mostly silent about the experience. But in his book he has discussed for the first time in detail his time as an inmate of Ford Open Prison in Sussex.

When answering questions on that subject, his East End thick skin is evident.

He mentions fleetingly how some prisoners would "stab someone for having an extra piece of toast in the morning", but is more interested in revealing the funny side of prison life, where he did deals to get a tailor to make him new clothes, to obtain cigars and decent bed linen.

Or the time when he went out on day release and met Binyamin Netanyahu, at the time a government minister, or after his release when he organised a big open day at the prison, which he attended "in a blue Porsche".

"The fact is you have to manage it because you are there," he says. "It's not about befriending people but behaving intelligently in an environment which is totally different to what you're used to. Some people never adapt. I fortunately adapted relatively quickly."

Likewise he won't admit any bitterness over the entire affair.

"The whole thing was politically motivated and there were a lot of people involved who were major names in The City but never appeared anywhere," he says.

"I never believed I was doing anything dishonest but I am not bitter about it. I never was. I just got on with my life."

Rebuilding his life and business may have been harder than his six months in jail. In the restructuring he lost nearly £1billion of his own money but rebuilding the empire was something he felt had to be accomplished because his reputation and Heron's were "one and the same".

Having been through such a difficult business environment and come out the other end, he has hopeful words for those struggling in the recession. "I do think we will come out of things stronger, with better values. People are going to have to become more conscientious," he says.

Part of that, he hopes, will be a return to the "killer instinct", which he feels is necessary in business but has been lost in the new generation of entrepreneurs.

"When you're highly driven you want to make something of yourself - you've got that fire in your belly," he says. "I do think that people have got softer. Maybe I am speaking like an old man but at 70 I have the energy of two 35-year-olds."

And with that remark, accompanied by a wide grin, he suggests that all bets on his retirement may be off after all.

Gerald Ronson will discuss Leading From the Front with Sir Harry Solomon on Monday September 14 at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival at Ivy House, North End Road NW11. To book tickets, go to www.hamhighlitfest09.com or www.hamhigh.co.uk - or call 020-8511 7900.


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