Feet in mouth

The phrases “doing a Ratner” and “a Ratner moment” came into use after Gerard Ratner’s famous presentation gaffe. The terms refer to the not uncommon tendency of top and senior executives to momentarily lose control of their brains and an put their foot in their mouth.

In 1991, Gerald Ratner, the then head of Britain's biggest high street jeweller, described a silver decanter as 'total crap.' That year, his company, Ratners, produced profits of £110 million. Ratner made his remarks at the AGM of the Institute of Directors. He was giving a presentation which, unbeknownst to him was also attended by members of the press. Speaking of his company’s outstanding performance, the Financial Times reported him as saying: '”We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say "How can you sell this for such a low price?" I say, because it's total crap.'

Ratner paid dearly for his momentary loss of control. The company's profits turned into a loss of £122m and within a year, investors forced him to leave the board. The Ratner brandname was changed to Signet.
The potential for such foot-in-mouthisms from leading businessmen always frightens City fund managers. One said: 'What is so maddening is that it is avoidable. I'm not sure what goes through their minds, but it can have a serious impact.'

For instance, when Stagecoach boss Keith Cochrane, in the US magazine Forbes, compared US bus passengers to riffraff, reaction was swift. Stagecoach shares fell from 73p to 69p in a matter of days. Stagecoach, concerned that its man had 'done a Ratner', vigorously denied it. Stagecoach seems to have a habit of bad publicity. It’s reportedly colourful chairman Brian Souter, once described all northerners as 'beer-drinking, chip-eating, council house-dwelling masses'.

In another example of loss of presence, retail entrepreneur Philip Green was forced to offer an unreserved apology to the Irish in a bid to prevent a customer boycott. Attacking the Guardian's financial editor, Paul Murphy, during an investigation into his accounts, Green said: 'He can't read English. Mind you, he is a f***ing Irishman.'
Green referred to Murphy’s nationality several times while attempting to prevent the paper writing about his accounts. He was forced to apologise and said he had not meant to offend.

Gaffes do not always presage disaster. Other seemingly disparaging remarks, such as Topman brand director David Shepherd's description of his customers as 'hooligans' who bought Topman suits for their first court appearance, have not triggered meltdown. Although shares in Topman's owner, Arcadia, fell 4.5p to 270p afterwards, the company's profits for the year jumped to £53.3m from a loss of £8.5m.

At the time of the slip-up by Newcastle United directors Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall - they described female fans as 'dogs' and said they couldn’t understand fans buying club shirts that cost £5 to produce and sold for £50 - shares were 45p below the price at flotation a year before. They actually rose a few days afterwards.

Camelot's Dianne Thompson will have to live with her suggestion that punters would be lucky to win a tenner. Perhaps she should have known better - she worked at Ratner successor Signet.

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