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Ineos Founder Jim Ratcliffe: Man United’s White Knight?

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The revered English football club Manchester United is up for sale. The self-made billionaire Jim Ratcliffe is one of the bidders. Should he acquire the club, it would complete a remarkable success story.

A recent cartoon published in British newspaper The Guardian, deals with the battle to buy Manchester United. Referencing the controversy around sovereign wealth funds buying football clubs, cartoonist David Squires jokes: “Luckily for United, there’s an alternative: Cuddly old Jim Ratcliffe!”

A saint-like Ratcliffe appears: He is “just like your favorite uncle” because he “loves Brexit.” Squires adds that he’s a Monaco resident for “yacht and tax reasons.” And then the killer line: “Helping us all get closer to the sweet release of death with his aggressive lobbying against environmental regulations. Thanks Jim!”

Artistic licence of course, but it does point to the complexity of Ratcliffe’s story. A charismatic man admired for his remarkable success in business — but a lot more controversial than perhaps first meets the eye.

Making a Fortune in Chemicals

There’s little doubt that he is the popular choice among Manchester United fans to buy the club. Current owners the American Glazer family are extremely unpopular while polls suggest far more fans want Ratcliffe to buy the club than his main rival, the Qatari royal family.

But who is Jim Ratcliffe? The 70-year-old Englishman is the founder, majority owner and chairman of Ineos. According to the US trade magazine Chemical & Engineering News, it is the sixth-largest chemicals company in the world as of 2022.

Ineos comprises dozens of standalone businesses in the chemicals sector, producing many of the raw materials which go into a vast array of everyday products from plastics and medicines to paint and petrol.

Ratcliffe himself was estimated to have a net worth of close to $25.6 billion (€24 billion at today’s rate) in 2018 although that has fallen in recent years. Forbes estimates his personal worth at $15.2 billion as of February 2023.

He only became an entrepreneur at the age of 40 when he staked everything he had on one monumental bet.

After studying chemical engineering, he worked for Esso for a few years before an MBA took him into the world of private equity. He was working with the firm Advent International when, in 1992, he decided he wanted to do something “for myself.”

Along with a colleague, he convinced banks to give him £40 million ($47 million; €45 million) to buy one of BP’s specialty chemicals businesses. He mortgaged his house and used his entire life savings to fund the deal. With two young sons at the time, it was a huge risk. “I was 40 years old. It is a very critical part of your career path,” he told the Financial Times in 2014. ”If it goes wrong you’ve lost all your money and completely screwed up your career.”

The move was the birth of his company Inspec, which morphed into Ineos in 1998. The company expanded quickly through a series of smart acquisitions, typically buying undervalued chemicals divisions from larger companies such as BASF and BP, and then rapidly cutting costs to help finance more deals and make the enterprises profitable.

There has been plenty of turbulence. The financial crisis hit the company hard, with its debt pile a huge burden. A dispute with the UK government over a temporary deferral of VAT (value-added tax) payments led Ratcliffe to move Ineos from the UK to Switzerland in 2010 before he eventually moved it back six years later.

Courting Controversy

Then there was the event in 2013 which really thrust Ratcliffe into the spotlight in the UK, an industrial clash between Ineos and a trade union over wages and pensions for workers at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland.

Ratcliffe insisted cuts were needed to keep the plant going. Ten years on, Grangemouth is still open but his reputation took a hit during the bitter dispute as a result of what were perceived as his hard-line tactics.

Another controversial point was his support for Brexit. However, his enthusiasm for the UK leaving the EU did not stop him from choosing France over the UK as the place in which he wants Ineos to build its first flagship car.

Ratcliffe’s “Grenadier,” labeled as a successor to the Land Rover Defender, was due to be built in Wales. But in December 2020, he confirmed the car would be built in the French town of Hambach, near the Franco-German border, after he bought a Mercedes plant there.

He has said his “thick Mancunian skin” helps him deal with the criticism his career brings and he certainly wasn’t born into privilege. He was raised in a council house in Manchester until the age of 10 when the family moved to Yorkshire. His father worked as a joiner before eventually running a factory that made furniture.

In a BBC profile of Ratcliffe in 2013, Jim’s brother Bob gave an insight into their father’s “tough love” when he described what it was like working beside him in the factory. When a worker asked Ratcliffe Senior to give Bob a ride home in the car, rather than make him cycle, he replied: “He isn’t sugar, he won’t melt.”

Sports Loving or Sportswashing?

In recent years, Ineos and Jim Ratcliffe have become arguably better known for their involvement in sports than chemicals. Ineos bought the French Ligue 1 side OGC Nice in 2019 and also owns Swiss side Lausanne-Sport.

It also runs the Tour de France-winning cycling group formerly known as Team Sky, now known as the Ineos Grenadiers. It funds the UK’s America’s Cup sailing team and sponsors the Mercedes Formula One team.

Ratcliffe himself says he is a sports fan and that motivates the moves. He is an avid cyclist, marathon runner and mountaineer and is one of the few people on the planet to have been to both the North Pole and the South Pole.

But critics say Ratcliffe is engaged in a form of “sportswashing”, using sports to distract from Ineos’ serious environmental issues and his own long-established support for fracking.

Ineos is a major fossil fuels user and has been involved in several environmental controversies over the years, from an oil leak in Norway to chemical leaks in France to a release of toxic gas which led to workers being hospitalized in Belgium.

Whatever the motivations, Ineos is now a serious player in the global sports business. And even though he’s 70, Ratcliffe clearly still feels like he is only getting started. He dismisses talk of retirement.

Ineos director Tom Crotty gave an insight into what drives Ratcliffe in an interview with the Financial Times back in 2020.

“Jim has a philosophy which says you want to try and make as many days of your life as memorable as you can, which is why he personally goes on all these adventures. The same is true in business.”

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