Romance? No, Sir Jim Ratcliffe will want a profit from Manchester United
Sir Jim Ratcliffe's eyes lit up as he addressed a business gathering, recalling his great night as an unknown supporter high up in the Camp Nou for Manchester United's most famous night. "You know, the club is burned deep into my memory," he told the FT Conference just last month.
But make no mistake, this one-time Old Trafford regular's true home is the boardroom – and he will only be buying United on the explicit terms that he can turn a profit.
There will be some tough discussion to be had with the New York-based Raine Group, the same broker involved in the protracted £2.5 billion Chelsea takeover by a consortium led by Todd Boehly.
Back in the early spring, Ratcliffe had been among the first of a queue of billionaires to express interest in a deal with Roman Abramovich – but he was initially put off by a sky high asking price from Raine.
He bided his time – too much time – for the price to start dropping. By the time he got his paperwork over with his £2.5bn "British bid, for a British club" on April 29, exclusive talks with Boehly had begun.
This time, of course, it matters for the Oldham lad, but once again, he will not be letting emotions get in the way. With all investments at the Ineos empire he presides over, there is a three-year plan to ensure investments either increase in value or are paid off altogether.
Yet Brexiteer Ratcliffe will delight at quickly earning the title as the "people's choice" in an inevitable feeding frenzy for United. For someone once described as “publicity shy”, the 69-year-old billionaire enjoys making waves.
Having faced down eco-warriors and tax critics on his way to becoming one of Britain's richest men – bargaining with the Glazers, and indeed fierce competition from American investment groups, will not faze him.
It remains to be seen whether, this time, Ratcliffe will formally declare his bid as plans to resume talks with Raine. For the first 20 years of its existence no-one except business junkies had really heard of the chemicals multinational Ineos, let alone the man who owned it. When Ratcliffe received a knighthood in the 2018 Birthday Honours, he was anointed Britain’s richest man (he has since slipped down the rankings), and bought Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup team for £110 million.
Famously, that first investment came after Ratcliffe, whose empire has been worth in excess of £20bn, met with Ainslie, simply because he fancied having a drink with him. “Most expensive gin and tonic of my life,” he joked.
How Ratcliffe expanded his reach over the sporting world
Ineos’s extraordinary sporting land grab over the last four years – as well as his sailing team, Ratcliffe has hoovered up Team Sky, Nice Football Club, sponsored Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two hour marathon challenge, the All Blacks, bought a stake in Mercedes F1 and launched an 11th-hour and ultimately doomed bid for Chelsea – has been compared to that of Red Bull, another privately-owned billion dollar multinational with a huge sporting portfolio.
Ratcliffe’s reasons for investing in all these properties, however, are less easy to fathom. Red Bull is a consumer brand. It sells billions of cans of energy drink every year. It wants visibility and brand recognition; hence its investment in F1 and extreme sports. No-one ‘buys’ Ineos.
In fact, Ratcliffe outright denied that brand recognition was of any concern to him in an interview with this newspaper in August 2018. He has changed his tune a little on that score since then. There are now a few Ineos-owned brands – including the Grenadier 4x4 vehicle into which his company has invested £1bn, and clothing company Belstaff, now run by former Ineos Grenadiers CEO Fran Millar. But that still does not seem to be the primary reason.
It is not only United's profitability where Ratcliffe will see personal gain. In this era of Middle East nations accused of sportswashing, there is also a clear desire to use sport to soften the Ineos's image too. Ineos was accused of “greenwashing” when it bought into sailing and cycling. And it is true the company has used its various sporting partnerships to highlight the work it does on tackling pollution, or research into biodegradable plastic. Or to trumpet its Daily Mile, an initiative which encourages primary schools and nurseries to take children running outside for 15 minutes each day.
But investing in F1 – the most toxic sport on the planet – was hardly going to appease the green lobby. And besides, Ratcliffe is hardly afraid of a little negative publicity.
Ratcliffe is not a man who backs down
This is a man who faced down the unions at Grangemouth, had little time for environmental campaigners in Yorkshire in 2019 when they protested his efforts to drill in a number of locations across the county (Ratcliffe dismissed groups such as Frack Free United as “ignorant”, describing them as a “noisy, minuscule minority”), and was not afraid of the court of public opinion when he took his billions off to Monaco to live in tax exile in 2020. Ironically, it was estimated that move would save him £4bn, exactly the amount he bid for Chelsea in April.
Ratcliffe does not back down, whether it is the green lobby or a business rival. Back in April, Ineos handed the Government research showing Britain is sitting on 50 years' worth of shale gas, lobbying to restart fracking which he believes could boost the country's domestic energy supplies.
The son of a joiner and an office worker who grew up on a council estate in Failsworth, Greater Manchester – hence his lifelong following of United – Ratcliffe is a proud, unapologetic industrialist and engineer. A self-made billionaire who is now indulging his passions.
Ratcliffe is also a self-confessed sports junkie. He has run marathons, trekked to both poles and ridden across South Africa on a motorbike. Now he is busy building one of the largest portfolios in world sport, with Sir Dave Brailsford running it as director of sport.
United, if he gets it, would be the crown jewel and there are obvious reasons why his interest is sparking such excitement among Manchester United supporters.
On the basis of his detailed offer to Roman Abramovich, Ratcliffe would appear willing to press ahead with much-needed improvements in infrastructure at United. He had promised in his offer to Chelsea to "invest in Stamford Bridge to make it a world-class stadium".
This time there may be no more bold manifesto pledges, however. He may change approach in his battle with the Glazers – but they will not cow him.