Gerald Ronson fought fascists on the streets before building a business empire, serving a prison term, and giving millions to charity. He is now concerned to ensure that UK Jews have a secure future
GERALD RONSON THINKS for a minute as he reckons up how much he has given to Jewish charities over the years. “It’s about £35 to £40 million, but then my wife [Dame Gail Ronson] and I probably raise about £6 million a year for other charities.” Just the same, Ronson insists, it is not about the money.
A driven individual who at 68 still works “an 80- or 90-hour week” — 20 per cent of it devoted to charitable and philanthropic work — the property (and onetime petrol-station) giant has won admiration even from his critics after overcoming two crises which might have broken other men: prison, in the wake of the Guinness shares scandal; and the near collapse of his company, Heron, with net debts of £328m.
But Ronson has successfully reinvented himself, after bringing in new investors such as Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch. These days, the
Rich List places Ronson 89th in the top 500 in property, rating him as worth £280 million. Current projects include the Heron Tower, among the tallest buildings being constructed in the City of London. So inevitably, it about the money.
From his earliest days in business, Gerald Maurice Ronson has made a point of putting something back into the community. He was, he says, “a bit of a
when he was a young man. “I used to go to the Jewish charities when I was 15, 16. In fact, I met [Sir] Trevor Chinn when I was 16 when he was running the Charities Aid… so we go back a long way.” Ronson did not really do much himself, though, at that stage. After four years at a commercial college in Cricklewood — where he excelled in arithmetic, geography and games — he left school at 15 to sweep the floors of his father Henry’s furniture business. Eventually, he became works manager.
At 18, there was a turning point. “What really drew me in was the fight against antisemitism; the 62 Group.” This was a loose coalition of mainly Jewish teenagers who led the challenge against Oswald Mosley’s fascists, newly resurgent after the war. He followed this by joining the Jewish Aid Committee of Britain — Jacob — which was also founded to fight fascism. Out of Jacob grew GRET, the slightly secretive Group Relations Educational Trust, which then became the CST, the present-day Community Security Trust — “and not”, Ronson is at pains to point out, “Gerald Ronson’s private army”.
“We formed Jacob because we needed a vehicle to raise money to fight,” he explains. “I was very much involved, in the early days, in, shall we say, the physical side… It then developed into a much more sophisticated machine, which is what CST is now: but then our enemies are much broader, too. Today, our
lob- enemies are the extreme left, the extreme right and, most of all, the Islamic fundamentalists.”
Had the young Ronson been a street-fighter? “I would certainly describe myself as a street-fighter in those days, and I have no embarrassment whatsoever about that. That’s how we dealt with the fascists, and we did take them off the streets in London — we did what we had to do.”
By 26, newspapers were describing Ronson as “Britain’s youngest self-made millionaire”, thanks to an unerring instinct for profitable commercial property deals and a hands-on approach that has continued to stand him in good stead. Even today, when he might be thought ready to take life a little easier, Ronson works a six-and-a-half day week, touring Heron International sites on Sunday mornings and continuing a punishing international travel schedule.
He paid what he calls his “first serious visit” to Israel in 1967 with the then Joint Palestine Appeal, meeting Golda Meir during a fact-finding mission. He keeps his views about Israeli politics to himself, stating that he is “not a political person… I do have opinions, but they’re really about people I can work with or people I can’t work with. I’m a people person. With me, what you see is what you get. A lot of people can’t handle that, because I’m very up-front. I say what I think… I haven’t got time to dress things up in fancy phrases.”
He spent much of his time during the Six-Day War working for the JPA (now UJIA), canvassing and getting involved in the Jewish Agency’s projects. Directly out of that involvement came his passion for building schools: three in Israel, then Immanuel College in Bushey, King Solomon High School in Barkingside, Yesodey Hatorah and the Lubavitch Girls’ School in London, a wing at JFS, and now his