Driving ambition: on safari with Sir Jim Ratcliffe

The Ineos CEO and Manchester United co-owner is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. One of his latest adventures, which GJ has joined him for, is an epic drive across the Kruger National Park, behind the wheel of his latest project…

They say mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, chairman and CEO of Ineos, one of the world’s largest chemical producers, takes this to a whole new level. As the clock strikes 12, Ratcliffe is pacing excitedly around the teak decking of the Pafuri Camp in the Kruger National Park. It’s 40 degrees and climbing, but he’s ready to run.

Dressed in a Nike singlet, shorts, and trainers in green and red – a nod to Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who wore a similar pair for his Ineos-sponsored 1:59 marathon – he leads a small troop of Ineos executives and me out into the bush.

“We’ll run to the airstrip and see how we get on,” he shouts back, already disappearing down the camp’s dirt drive at a steady pace. “He doesn’t hang around,” says Lynn Calder, CEO of Ineos Automotive, to my left. “He’s like a diesel engine – he just keeps going.” Either side of the dusty track lurk leopards, buffalo, elephants and crocodiles, not to mention the possibility of stumbling across a lion. This is no ordinary Saturday lunchtime run, but Ratcliffe is no ordinary businessman.

At 71, the proud northerner is more active than he’s ever been. He has an estimated net worth of £29.6bn, the Sunday Times Rich List pins him as the second-wealthiest man in the UK, meanwhile Forbes has him at 67th wealthiest in the world. His success in business is as mindboggling as his insatiable appetite for adventure. So far, the Ineos boss has been to the North and South Poles, navigating the treacherous Northwest Passage in his 74ft explorer yacht, Sherpa. He’s climbed the Matterhorn with his sons, George and Sam, then teenagers; run across the Namibian desert; completed the Comrades Marathon for his 60th birthday and an Ironman triathlon aged 64. As for ‘holidays’, Ratcliffe isn’t exactly putting his feet up around the pool, and this trip is no exception.

In 2012, he was joined by his sons and others as they motorcycled around southern Africa, covering 6,000 miles in 100 days. Following up with something equally spectacular for his 70th, a similar group drove across Mongolia and into China in vintage cars, from 1930s Bentleys to classic Porsches.

Ratcliffe is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. One of his latest adventures is one I’ve joined him for – an epic drive across the Kruger National Park, in South Africa, to the Okavango Delta, in Botswana, behind the wheel of his latest project, the Ineos Grenadier.

“We’re an adventurous species, aren’t we?” he ponders, sitting by the campfire one evening, dressed in white with a colourful African scarf around his neck. “I think it’s part of our DNA, but it’s more evident in some than others,” he adds. His weathered appearance is evidence both of a life lived outdoors and of long days – and nights – spent behind a desk executing deals. His appetite for adventure, challenge and risk – albeit calculated risk, he assures me – are long-standing characteristics and the foundations of his success.

The son of a joiner, he grew up in a council house in Failsworth, Manchester. “I didn’t come from any money, so I ended up being very focused on my career,” he explains. Once out of education, he fell into the chemicals business, with a very brief stint at BP, followed by posts at Courtaulds and Exxon, where he completed an MBA. “I suppose going to London Business School was adventurous, given my very ‘up north’ background,” he shrugs.

Shortly after, Ratcliffe’s career reached a fundamental turning point. He snatched an irresistible opportunity to join American private-equity company Advent International, and it was here where he learned the art of deal-making. “It’s really simple – if you do bad deals, you get fired. If you don’t do deals, you get fired. But, you get paid a lot of money, so it’s a very intense life,” he chuckles.

Ratcliffe’s big break came in 1992, when his firm was on the cusp of the biggest deal it had done, buying out a BP chemicals business for £40m. “I jumped the fence to become chief executive,” he recalls. “Within a week of being 40, I had to put everything I owned into the deal – everything was mortgaged to the hilt. You put your family, your house and all the assets you’ve accumulated over 20 years on the line. Not many people are prepared to do that.”

Within two years, the business was valued at £100m, when it floated on the London Stock Exchange. More deals followed for Ratcliffe, particularly in 1998, as he went on to form Ineos with his two long-standing partners, Andy Currie and John Reece. “Ultimately, risk is related to reward and most people who do deals fail – they’re just not rigorous enough,” he says. “We’ve hardly ever failed on a deal.”

Between the impromptu trail runs and brief moments at camp, our time is spent behind the wheel of Ratcliffe’s new Ineos Grenadier – a rugged, go-anywhere off-roader built to honour and “continue the legacy” of the Land Rover Defender.

“In an industry that’s seen countless new car companies fail, Ineos has defied the odds”

Ratcliffe kickstarted the project as soon as he heard that Land Rover would be ending production of the original Defender in 2015, naming it after his favourite pub in London, which he then bought in 2022. A long-standing Ineos employee, Lynn Calder was appointed CEO of the automotive division, in 2022, meanwhile Ratcliffe’s youngest son, George, joined as commercial director in April, 2023.

Speeding off into the bush behind the wheel of his own creation, as ever, Ratcliffe doesn’t hang about. With so many extraordinary expeditions under his belt, the Grenadier is more than a billion-dollar-plus new frontier for Ratcliffe – it’s a four-wheeled reflection of his character and a tool to help him take on more extreme adventures. In an industry that’s seen countless new car companies fail, Ineos has defied the odds.

But, motoring isn’t the final frontier for Ratcliffe – far from it. He has also built a sporting empire, in a matter of just a few years. “Me, John [Reece] and Andy [Currie] are all from the north of England, we all enjoy sport and we’ve all made a lot of money, so why not? It’s a lot of fun.” Ratcliffe owns Sky’s Tour de France cycling franchise, which he named the Grenadiers, and one third of Mercedes-AMG F1 squad. Ineos is a sponsor of the New Zealand All Blacks, it backed Kipchoge’s epic sub-two-hour marathon challenge and piled £110m into Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup challenge. “We were getting quite large, but no one had ever heard of us,” says Ratcliffe, explaining how the sports side of the business came about. “We decided that sport would be an interesting and fun way to build brand awareness.”

Alongside Sir Jim’s roster of international sporting properties sit three football clubs – FC Lausanne-Sport, OGC Nice, and Manchester United, of which he is now a co-owner.

There’s very little that’s out of reach for Ratcliffe. He is an entrepreneur in the purest sense. Fuelled by opportunity, he’s amassed a fortune larger than many countries’ GDPs – but, despite his ambition, he didn’t always expect his empire to expand this significantly. “You don’t set out the age of 40 and say, 'by the time I’m 70, I’ll have built this huge empire',” he explains. He is still restless in his pursuit of the next opportunity. “Day by day, you look at opportunities and the one or two you go after just occasionally happen, and then you move on to the next challenge.”

For now, Sir Jim Ratcliffe has a lot on his plate. Taking on the sporting behemoth of Manchester United is a challenge like no other, and one he wouldn’t have dared to dream of growing up in the northern city. “As a boy, I couldn’t have ever imagined making an offer on Manchester United, that’s for sure! I was brought up on a council estate,” he says wryly.

How Ratcliffe’s premiership will fare remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely to be his final move – in sport or business. Ever the entrepreneur at heart, all aspects of his life continue apace. “I’ll never lose that entrepreneurial streak – it’s part of your DNA,” he insists. “Taking on new challenges is fun. It keeps me young.”

The Ineos Grenadier

  • Price – Starts at £64,500
  • Power – 210kW (petrol); 183kW (diesel)
  • Top speed – 99mph
  • Mpg – 18.9–19.6 (petrol); 23.3–25.9 (diesel)
  • CO2 emissions – 325–336g/km (petrol); 286–317g/km (diesel)

This feature was taken from Gentleman’s Journal’s Winter 2023 issue. Read more about it here.

Want more motoring content? Here’s a short history of the royal cars…

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