Buccaneering entrepreneur Sir Jim Ratcliffe believes that you need a bit of luck in life.
‘But the harder you work, the luckier you get – I do believe that,’ says Britain’s richest man.
The 70-year-old billionaire is in a cheery mood at the launch of his latest commercial venture, the Grenadier 4×4 off-roader created in the spirit of the now discontinued Land Rover Defender.
As founder and majority owner of the giant chemical company Ineos Group, his business interests already stretch from oil and gas and petrochemicals to hand sanitisers and luxury motor-inspired clothing firm Belstaff.
Then there is sport, including Formula One motor racing with Mercedes-Benz, sailing with Sir Ben Ainslie and cycling with the Ineos Grenadiers.
There’s football too, with his company owning French Ligue 1 side OGC Nice and Swiss Challenge League club FC Lausanne-Sport, and now considering a bid for Manchester United, the team he has supported since he was a boy.
But when we meet in the Scottish Highlands his focus is the Grenadier.
The setting is the royal Castle of Mey, just six miles from John O’Groats on the coast of Caithness, where Ratcliffe hosts an exclusive Grenadier launch dinner in the former residence of the late Queen Mother, now a rural retreat for the King.
First Grenadier deliveries are under way, order books stretch to six months, and there are 24 sales and service centres in the UK out of 200 globally.
At its peak, his pristine factory in Hambach, France, will produce between 25,000 and 30,000 Grenadiers a year, of which a third will go to the USA.
The plans do not end there. Ratcliffe says that in 2026, Ineos Automotive will launch a follow-up battery-powered zero-emissions 4×4 with a 248-mile range that is enough to get you from London to Manchester.
Having effectively signed it off, he says: ‘It looks pretty good.’
This year Ineos will also put a prototype hydrogen fuel-cell electric Grenadier on the road ahead of it going into showrooms by the end of the decade, though he thinks hydrogen is still ‘a long way away’ because of the lack of a refuelling infrastructure.
Ratcliffe is tall, lean, imposing and charismatic. A Northerner who likes running and cycling, he speaks his mind, has a colourful turn of phrase and keen sense of humour, and is mischievous.
He speaks passionately about his adventures and travels, clearly isn’t frightened to take calculated risks in business – and, one suspects, life – but negotiates hard, accounts for every penny and demands a return.
His is a rags-to-riches story. He was a bright boy from a Greater Manchester council estate in Failsworth near Oldham who was educated at a state grammar school in Beverley near Hull, and became a billionaire entrepreneur with a fortune of close to £14billion.
His career path encompasses a chemical engineering degree from Birmingham University and an MBA from London Business School before spells with Exxon, Courtaulds and private equity.
Ratcliffe mortgaged his family home at 40 in 1992 to fund his first purchase and created the foundations of his Ineos empire.
His latest Grenadier 4×4 project has not been without challenges –or controversy. And like all the best stories, it began in a pub.
As a car, 4×4, and motorbike enthusiast, Ratcliffe loved the ruggedly original go-anywhere Land Rover Defender, which ceased production in January 2016.
His offer to buy the production line and keep it running was rebuffed. So, sitting in The Grenadier pub in London’s Belgravia in 2017, he conceived the idea of creating a new model, identifying a gap in the market for ‘a stripped back, utilitarian, hard-working 4×4 engineered for modern-day compliance and reliability’.
Not short of a bob or two, and seeing potential, he set up Ineos Automotive to build the classic 4×4 of his dreams and he hired experts to bring his vision to life.
Ineos’s engineering partner is Austrian specialist Magna Steyr, and the original concept vehicle was designed by MBtech, a spin-off from Mercedes-Benz.
The three-litre petrol and diesel engines are supplied by BMW. A fan of BMW motorbikes, Ratcliffe enthuses over the German engines, saying: ‘You can beat the crap out of them. They are incredibly well made.’
Originally, the Grenadier was to have been built on the site of the former Ford Bridgend Engine Plant in South Wales where early preparation work was already under way.
Then Ratcliffe took a call from Mercedes-Benz boss Ola Kallenius who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
They already knew each other well, including through Ineos’s share in F1 driver Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes-Benz racing team.
‘We’ve got a good relationship with them,’ says Ratcliffe.
Mercedes was looking to off-load its state-of-the-art factory in Hambach after it had decided to switch production elsewhere. Was he interested?
Ratcliffe snapped up the kitted-out 200-acre site with its highly skilled 1,000-strong ex-Mercedes-Benz workforce in January 2021 for an undisclosed sum believed to have been an absolute bargain.
Some suggest Mercedes may even have paid him to take it off their hands. So was this deal the steal of the century?
‘I’ve not made any money out of it yet,’ he responds, with a laugh.
Both parties were satisfied though, Ratcliffe says, adding: ‘I’m not going to embarrass anyone. We’re happy.’
The economic argument for Hambach over Bridgend simply proved irresistible. So hopes of a new factory and jobs in Britain were dashed, causing frustration in the UK. It added to flak he took from critics already angry he supported Brexit but lived as a tax exile in Monaco and Switzerland.
But Ratcliffe is unperturbed, saying: ‘We’re in a much better place than if we’d had to build a new factory.’
On top of the factory row, Jaguar Land Rover has launched a number of failed legal actions against Ineos for the ‘lookalike’ 4×4. Then, as a knock-on from Covid, and the Ukraine conflict, project costs spiralled.
‘We thought it would be €1billion and ended up spending €1.5billion,’ Ratcliffe says.
But, unlike Sir James Dyson, who pulled the plug on his own ambitious electric car plans, Ratcliffe says they ‘never really got close to canning it’.
As a general rule across his businesses, he says, ‘we pay a sensible price, not a stupid price’.
He goes on: ‘We want to buy good assets. We try to double our profits over a five-year period.’
It requires ‘self-discipline’, he says, adding: ‘It takes time to learn. You have to bring in high-calibre people. Automotive is no different. Sport is no different.
‘Football’s the same. There’s a lot to learn.’ As Ineos Automotive moved from project to commercial reality, Ratcliffe appointed Scot Lynn Calder as chief executive. Businesses within Ineos are granted a high degree of autonomy but must deliver.
Ratcliffe encourages his top executives to take equity in the companies they run.
His Ineos Group now employs 26,000 people across 36 businesses in 29 countries and has annual sales of around £45billion.
His frenetic global business life – from the USA to China where he has a joint venture – means he is constantly on the move. ‘I’m never in the same place for very long,’ he says.
With homes and super-yachts around the world, Ratcliffe keeps a Grenadier and a Mercedes G-Wagon in the French ski-resort of Courchevel.
He speaks passionately about his off-roading adventures in the wilds of Namibia and Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
He has been to both the North and South Poles, and went on a month-long motorbike trip in South Africa in 2015.
He’s travelled a long road already. But you can bet he’ll be raising a brimming glass to his latest automotive adventure next time he’s in the Grenadier pub.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe, chairman INEOS
Family: Three children, two sons and one daughter.
Born and raised: Council estate in Failsworth, near Oldham, Greater Manchester until age of 10 when family moved to East Yorkshire.
His father was a joiner who went on to run a factory making laboratory furniture, and his mother in an accounts office
Lives now: Monaco with homes in London and Switzerland close to Lake Geneva.
Owns two hotels, Le Portetta (Courchevel, France) and Lime Wood (Hampshire, England) )
Education: Beverley Grammar School near Hull, Chemical engineering at Birmingham University, and his MBA at London Business School.
First job: After graduating he was offered a job in August 1973 at BP Saltend – but was fired just three days later when his routine medical report confirmed he had mild eczema and this was not permitted on site.
Thirty-two years later, INEOS bought BP Petrochemicals for $9billion. Poetic justice.
Hobbies and interests: Football, marathons, cycling, adventure, endurance, travel, and anything ‘work hard, play hard’.
First car: A white Volkswagen Beetle (though he and his brother Bob speed-trialled their father’s Ford Corsair 2000 company car on the day he passed his test). Later a Vauxhall Cavalier before graduating to a BMW 5 Series.
Best advice: Try to maximise the number of days that are unforgettable.