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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

London property tycoon Gerald Ronson: ‘Young people want to get back to the office’

But he also can’t help wondering whether the pandemic has done something to the national work ethic. “I’m not sure people want to work as hard as they did in the past. I think people got used to a comfortable living,” he says, although he admits he sounds “like an old dinosaur”.

By contrast, the workaholic Ronson is chauffeured up and down the country making sure everything in his petrol stations is just so – and heaven help any poor local managers if it isn’t.

The businessman himself invented the self-service petrol station back in the Sixties and built more than 1,000 of them in the UK and abroad. He has since pared off most of the sites in lesser locations to leave himself a core of 265 sites with 3,000 staff.

As an essential service, the stations remained open throughout the pandemic, although nearly 10pc of the staff came down with the virus.

Going electric

Ronson will talk all day about the politeness of his staff (“Good morning sir, thank you sir”) and the quality of the jet washers but ask him what he plans to do with the business in the longer term and he is more cagey.

The latest accounts for the Rontec roadside business report a creditable pre-tax profit of £42m for the year to September 2020 but admit to the “challenge” of adapting to the Government’s net zero targets on car sales. “Of course you’re going to have to adapt to electric vehicles.”

He adds: “What you got to have is a 150-160 kilowatt charge because with that you can most probably charge up 75-80pc of your car in most probably eight to 10 minutes. So you’ll plug in your car, go into the store, sit down, have a cup of Costa Coffee, have a hot dog or a sandwich. You’re sitting down there making a few calls from your computer because that’s the world we’re living in today. Although don’t look at me, because I can’t work a computer.”

That sounds expensive. How will he fund it? A sale and leaseback splitting the property and the operating companies? He dismisses that: “What am I going to do with the money? I’m not short of liquidity anywhere in the group. I don’t have any debt. Rontec has £150m in cash in the bank.”

They are the kind of cash-rich assets that would have any number of private equity investors poring over them but Ronson insists: “I have no plans to sell the business. You got to realise number one, I enjoy it. Yeah. And if you’re blessed with a business that you enjoy, at 82 years of age, running and leading from the front” – he drops in the title of his autobiography – “you’re blessed.”

That said, he does sound less convinced about the Government’s green drive. “I don’t know if we’ll be down to net zero. And I really wonder if most of the politicians who talk about it understand it themselves.”

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