Welcome to Failsworth, a small Lancashire town sandwiched between Oldham and Manchester. It’s about seven miles north east of Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium.
More specifically, welcome to Dunkerley Avenue, a largely residential road lined with semi-detached houses and two shops: the Master Wok takeaway and The Harrop Cake Company. Both establishments have their shutters down today.
The Athletic is walking up and down between the canal at one end and a cemetery at the other, knocking on doors, hoping to find somebody who can help us.
What we’re looking for is anyone who knows which of these houses Sir Jim Ratcliffe — the billionaire who submitted a bid in February to buy United from the club’s current owners, the Glazer family — spent his early childhood in. Or anyone who lived on Dunkerley Avenue when he did.
But our trip to Failsworth is yet another dead-end in our quest to find out more about Ratcliffe’s rise from this modest street to being one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.
As one person puts it when they answer their door and we ask if they know Ratcliffe: “Who’s that?”
Which is exactly what The Athletic is trying to find out.
What we do know is Ratcliffe spent the first 10 years of his life calling a council house on Dunkerley Avenue home. We also know that his father was a joiner and his mother worked in an accounts office.
Ratcliffe once said he used to count the chimney stacks he could see from his bedroom window in Failsworth, but then he moved across the Pennines to Yorkshire, where he was enrolled at Beverley Grammar School, just north of Hull.
Today he is listed among the school’s notable alumni on its website, along with former England goalkeeper Paul Robinson. Ratcliffe also featured in a 1971 edition of the school’s magazine, the Beverlonian, which said he left the school with A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry, had been joint organiser of its Industrial Society, a prefect, and was the captain of the school’s football team.
“I do remember him,” says John Robinson, a former PE teacher at the school. “I remember him as being tall and slim, very athletic. He didn’t carry any weight at all. He was generally a good all-round sportsman. He was a nice young bloke, mixed in well. He was a pretty clever fella, too. He’s done very well in life, hasn’t he?
“I owe him an apology because he wrote to me many years ago, wishing to be put in touch with the Old Boys Association. Unfortunately it was at a time we were moving house and for whatever reason it was lost or discarded. If I get to meet him before I pop my clogs then the first thing I’ll do is say sorry for not replying to his letter.”
Ratcliffe read chemical engineering at Birmingham University, then worked for Esso after graduation, before moving into private equity at Advent International.
In 1992 he co-founded chemicals firm Inspec, and six years later formed INEOS, another company in the same field.
At INEOS, he used high-yield debt to finance deals and started hoovering up unwanted operations from British Petroleum (BP) before eventually buying Innovene, BP’s refining and petrochemical arm, in 2006.
In its first 10 years, INEOS completed more than 20 acquisitions. Its strategy was relatively simple: take on debt to buy the asset, reduce the outgoings via cost savings and build it back up.
When the global financial crash happened in 2008, INEOS struggled to deal with the sharp decline in oil prices and the company closed some factories. Tom Crotty, then INEOS chief executive, said: “We’ve seen demand falling off across the whole portfolio of chemical products without exception.”
Manchester United survey: Two-thirds of fans want a Sir Jim Ratcliffe takeover
Because of the crash, INEOS also broke a covenant and had to renegotiate debts with several banks at a cost of £804million ($966.4m). Ratcliffe asked the UK’s then-Labour government for a short-term deferral of a VAT payment worth £350million ($420.7m), but the request was turned down.
Ratcliffe’s fortune continued to grow. In the 2018 edition of The Sunday Times ‘Rich List’, his wealth was estimated at £21.05billion ($25.4bn) and he was labelled the United Kingdom’s richest individual.
The bulk of his wealth comes from INEOS, which comprises 36 businesses at 194 sites in 29 countries with more than 26,000 employees. Recent oil price rises mean its revenues will likely soar even higher.
“We’re not short of opportunities,” Ratcliffe told The Sunday Times in February. “We’ve just done a colossal deal in China. We’re at $65billion (sales). We’ve got oil and gas, and our core business of petrochemicals — plus our new automotive division.”
His mention of the new automotive division is a reference to the Ineos Grenadier, a 4×4 vehicle which he named after The Grenadier, a pub he owns in central London — and which is The Athletic’s next port of call.
Wilton Row is a quiet mews in Belgravia, round the back of Buckingham Palace and also a short walk from Harrods. A four-bedroom terraced house here recently sold for just under £11million ($13.2m); a three-bedroom house on Dunkerley Avenue was listed for £165,000 in January.
It’s on Wilton Row that you’ll find The Grenadier pub, outside of which The Athletic finds a black Grenadier car — Ratcliffe had the idea for the vehicle while at the pub and has since spent over £1.3billion ($1.7bn) on the project.
The pub itself is small, so it seems busier inside than you might expect on a Tuesday afternoon. Visitors will not fail to notice the bottle of INEOS-branded hand sanitiser on the main bar.
There are also bank notes stuck to the ceiling (see top image). A member of staff hands The Athletic a sheet explaining that the pub is haunted by a ghost named Cedric, a grenadier guards soldier from the 19th century who was caught cheating in a game of cards. Customers can stick money to the ceiling to pay off his debt — perhaps a bidder will do the same for United’s £656million ($786.9m) of net debt.
The Athletic asks about Ratcliffe. One staff member, who asks not to be named as they are wary of speaking to a journalist, describes him as a “great guy”: “You could not ask to speak to a nicer man.”
The Grenadier pub is not Ratcliffe’s only property. He also owns Lime Wood, a five-star hotel, in the New Forest, in Hampshire near Southampton; Le Portetta, a ski resort in Courchevel, France; and two superyachts, named Hampshire and Hampshire II.
Other assets he owns include Belstaff, the clothing company.
Then there is his sports portfolio, which includes Nice, the football team who play in France’s Ligue 1; Swiss football club Lausanne; one-third of the successful Mercedes F1 organisation; the INEOS Britannia sailing team, helmed by English multi-Olympic gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie; and the INEOS Tour de France-winning cycling team.
Ratcliffe’s United bid comes almost one year on from a failed attempt to muscle his way into the process to acquire Chelsea. If his ploy to beat Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital to the punch in west London looked frantic and desperate, that’s because it was. As far as his move for United is concerned, however, he has been measured, organised, and serious about purchasing the club he grew up supporting.
Some suggest getting his name out there as a potential buyer for Chelsea was a prerequisite to him going for the club he really wanted: United. Others who have dealt with Ratcliffe before still doubt whether he would go ahead and take control at Old Trafford.
“Jim is a flirter,” said a source, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their relationships, “but he has the money.”
A spokesperson for INEOS said of the bid: “We would see our role as the long-term custodians of Manchester United on behalf of the fans and the wider community.”
Though British communities haven’t always been the winners when it comes to Sir Jim’s business choices.
For his work at INEOS, Ratcliffe was awarded the Petrochemical Heritage Award, arguably the most prestigious in the industry, in 2013. Tom Tritton, a senior fellow at the Science History Institute and former president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, presented Ratcliffe with the award and spent the evening sitting with him.
“He was a very thoughtful, quiet and modest guy,” Tritton says. “I remember the dinner well because, unlike a lot of people, he had an extensive conversation with me about a lot of things other than the award.”
That night, Ratcliffe was asked where the name INEOS came from and answered by telling a story that included his two sons, two dictionaries (one Greek, one Latin) and an acquisition deadline: ‘Ineo’ is Latin for a new beginning; ‘Eos’ is the Greek goddess of the dawn; and ‘Neos’ is something new and innovative.
“I was really impressed with the guy,” Tritton says. “A lot of people with his stature and wealth don’t interact with normal people the way normal people interact with each other.
“He is a more intellectual person than you would expect from someone who is consumed by their business, which to me was refreshing and it probably is to the people around him. He makes the world a more interesting place.”
He is also not afraid of a fight or criticism.
A significant moment in INEOS history was the year 2010. That’s when the company moved its head office from Hampshire to Switzerland, where corporation tax is lower than in the UK. This came as a result of the economic downturn in 2008 and not being given that short-term deferral of a VAT payment. To save cash, INEOS say, they moved to a lower tax jurisdiction. In 2016, however, they then opened a new headquarters in Knightsbridge, London.
Another significant moment came in 2013, when Unite trade union members at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant and refinery in Scotland threatened to strike over pay and pensions, and INEOS responded that it would need to close the site down and cut 800 jobs. INEOS say that the petrochemical plant was losing money at the time due to a lack of gas from the North Sea and a costly final salary pension scheme. A solution was found when INEOS invested £300million ($360.6m) to bring gas from America, and in return they asked for a move to a defined contribution pension. The deal between INEOS and Unite was agreed at national level and the company described industrial relations since then as constructive.
Then there has been Ratcliffe’s long-time desire to get permission from the UK government to frack for shale gas. Liz Truss, then the Conservative prime minister, lifted a ban on the practice last September, but was forced from office a month later. Her replacement, Rishi Sunak, has again outlawed fracking.
It is unlikely that the U-turn improved the standing of politicians in Ratcliffe’s mind.
“They’ve always done bloody Classics at Oxford, or something like that,” he told The Sunday Times in February. “They’ve got no chance of ever understanding (the) energy (business).”
Ratcliffe has also not been afraid to get stuck in when it comes to politics, having vigorously supported the Brexit campaign in 2016.
“The Brits are perfectly capable of managing the Brits, and don’t need (the European Union in) Brussels telling them how to manage things,” he told The Sunday Times in 2015. “I just don’t believe in the concept of a United States of Europe. It’s not viable.”
While Ratcliffe did not offer financial support to Vote Leave, the official campaign in favour of leaving the European Union, the backing he gave to Brexit carried weight.
The Athletic spoke to Matthew Elliott, formerly the chief executive of Vote Leave campaign, who was happy to discuss Ratcliffe’s support for Brexit.
“It was an important moment,” Elliott says. “It was a big boost that business people of the calibre of Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Sir James Dyson, Lord (Anthony) Bamford and Lord (Simon) Wolfson came out and supported the campaign.
“His support was extremely worthwhile because not only is he a business leader, he is a great entrepreneur, building up INEOS from the ground. Having the support of people like that, who have not only been successful in business, is very important.”
Having campaigned for Brexit, Ratcliffe then said in 2019 that his choice of location to build INEOS’s 4×4 vehicle was Bridgend, south Wales — an economic boost for post-Brexit Britain he described as “a significant expression of confidence in British manufacturing”.
American car manufacturer Ford had closed its factory in Bridgend in 2020, 40 years after it opened, so the news that INEOS would produce around 25,000 Grenadiers a year there was met with open arms.
“There was significant optimism that one car manufacturer had left and a new one would come in,” Chris Elmore, Labour MP for the Ogmore constituency in Bridgend and senior opposition whip, tells The Athletic. “There was a genuine hope, though not at the same level of employment, that some of the people working at Ford would have the opportunity to transfer their skills into a manufacturer that they partially understood.”
One year later, however, INEOS decided to make their cars in France instead. Ratcliffe said it was an opportunity “we simply could not ignore” — INEOS were offered the chance to purchase the Hambach plant from Mercedes, with the German car manufacturer no longer wanting the site as they were moving production to China. It meant INEOS could move straight to production.
“From talking to constituents, there was an expression of disappointment that he wasn’t delivering the plant as promised,” Elmore says. “There was some anger because he voted Leave, and now wasn’t coming here. That leaves people confused and angry.”
“Businesses have all sorts of reasons why they locate to different places,” Elliott says. “I am not aware of him saying he chose to locate in France instead of the UK because of Brexit.”
In the same year that it was revealed his cars would be manufactured in France not Britain, Ratcliffe also moved his tax domicile from the UK to Monaco — best known for its tax-haven status.
According to the Sunday Times tax list in 2017-18, Ratcliffe paid £110million ($132.2m) in taxes, making him the UK’s third-biggest individual taxpayer.
In Monaco, people who live there for at least 183 days per year do not pay any income or property taxes.
However, Ratcliffe said moving to Monaco, aged 67, was a personal decision.
“I didn’t move down there until I was well into retirement age,” he told The Sunday Times in February. “Going to the sun, I might live a bit longer in a warmer climate.”
Manchester United suitor Sir Jim Ratcliffe: How has he done with his other clubs?
Ratcliffe, who was knighted “for services to business and investment” in 2018, is an industrialist who shows no signs of slowing down, even at the age of 70.
He remains markedly publicity-averse, but his public desire to buy one of the world’s most famous football clubs will make it difficult for him to continue operating out of the spotlight, especially as the bids are pored over.
It is also worth noting that, despite his vast wealth, he is still a local-businessman-done-very-well and somewhat of an underdog in the battle to acquire United.
His career has shown, though, that he is not a man to back down.
You suspect he will need every ounce of that fighting spirit as the race for United gathers pace.
(Top photo: Notes stuck to the ceiling of The Grenadier; by Dan Sheldon)