Lifetime of Achievement: Sir Jim Ratcliffe

Sir Jim Ratcliffe
How Sir Jim Ratcliffe went from a Manchester council house to Britain’s richest man

Sir Jim Ratcliffe is a man well accustomed to breaking records and topping tables, most notably as Britain’s richest person on numerous occasions.  

According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2023, Sir Jim’s net worth stands at an eye-watering US$37.5 billion, while his Ineos Group is a regular in the Fortune Global 500. 

However, in recent months, this self-made billionaire has been making headlines for his interest in buying Manchester United, the team he supported as a boy. 

At the time of writing there is rampant speculation that the club is no longer for sale but, were a multi-billion deal to be completed, it would be the biggest in football history.  

Whether or not a takeover comes to fruition, Sir Jim’s interest in United goes to show he remains intent on broadening his enormous business empire, even at the age of 70. 

Sir Jim Ratcliffe: From rags to riches

Growing up in a council house in Failsworth, Greater Manchester, it’s fair to say Sir Jim did not have your typical billionaire’s childhood.

His parents worked steady jobs, his mother in an accounts office and his father as a joiner, but there was certainly no vast fortune for him to inherit. 

Despite this modest upbringing, a young James Ratcliffe was fast developing an interest in business and industry, and exhibited a passion for engineering at Beverley Grammar School following his family’s move to Yorkshire when he was 10. 

His intelligence was plain to see and earned him a spot at the University of Birmingham, where he studied chemical engineering, before starting his working career with Esso. 

Sensing, however, that his journey in education was incomplete, Sir Jim then attended London Business School to earn his MBA in finance. 

Learning the ropes

Feeling confident he possessed the tools necessary to succeed in business, Sir Jim worked for a while at Courtaulds, the fabric, clothing and chemicals manufacturer, prior to boldly joining US private equity firm Advent International.

It was here that Sir Jim learned the art of making big-money investments and, in 1992, he teamed up with chemist Dr John Hollowood to purchase a chemicals division from BP in what was a huge US$50m deal – putting his family’s finances on the line. 

But it proved a smart move; when the newly-formed Inspec floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1994, it was already valued at US$125m. The organisation subsequently acquired BP’s equivalent site in Antwerp, Belgium. 

Building the Ineos empire

In 1998, Sir Jim decided to leave Inspec and launch his own chemicals company called Ineos, signalling the dawn of a new era. It would prove to be the smartest move of his career and one that would make him a billionaire businessman. 

And, in what was another ambitious manoeuvre – not to mention a sign of things to come – Ineos subsequently bought the Antwerp chemicals site from Inspec for more than US$100m.

Over the ensuing years, the firm completed a raft of deals to acquire unwanted subsidiaries from various big companies, ultimately making Ineos a heavyweight in itself. When considering these acquisitions, executives were asking one, straightforward question: can we double its earnings over five years?

The most notable such deal came in 2005, when Ineos took over Innovene from BP for a sum of around US$6.25bn. Ineos’ sales volume was immediately multiplied and its workforce doubled.

As was the case for countless businesses in manufacturing and beyond, the global financial crash resulted in a substantial decline in revenue and profitability, but Ineos emerged relatively unscathed. 

“We came out of that [the downturn] quite well,” said Sir Jim, speaking back in 2011. “We made changes and reduced costs, and I think we came out of it better than many companies, certainly in our industry. 

“Many people did not survive that downturn – the worst, certainly, that we have seen in our lifetimes. Today, the company is in much, much better shape.”

In a bid to avoid paying extortionate taxes, Ratcliffe moved Ineos’ headquarters from the UK to Switzerland, although a move back to British shores followed in 2016. 

Today, Ineos is a true giant of the chemical industry. While a lack of consumer products sold directly to the public means the name Ineos is not particularly well known, the firm is involved in the production of countless everyday items including medicines, household goods and even computer systems. 

Sir Jim’s love for sport 

If Sir Jim was to one day buy Manchester United, they would not be alone in benefitting from his riches. 

Over the past few years, Sir Jim’s business ventures have seen him spread his wings across the world of sport, initially with the takeover of Swiss club FC Lausanne-Sport in 2017.

Then came a move into sailing through the formation of Ineos Team UK alongside Ben Ainslie, followed up by the purchase of the Team Sky cycling franchise made famous by riders including Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, renaming it Team Ineos (now Ineos Grenadiers). 

Another ambitious foray into football came in 2019 with the takeover of French Ligue 1 outfit, Nice. 

Sir Jim has been linked with various big-name English teams and was last year unsuccessful in his attempts to buy Chelsea, losing out to a consortium led by American businessman Todd Boehly. 

The Ineos Group’s attempt to buy Man United reportedly placed a higher value on the club than that of Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim, relative to the size of the stake it intends to acquire. 

If Sir Jim does eventually end up at the helm, it would surely solidify his reputation as one of the most influential businesspeople in the UK, Europe and beyond. 

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