One word you are most likely to find in media reports about Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the British tycoon whose company sponsored Eliud Kipchoge’s Ineos 1:59 Challenge, is “reclusive”.
This is because Ratcliffe is such a publicity-shy man that even the notoriously aggressive journalists from his home country find it hard to track him down for interviews.
“Ratcliffe has become almost like Howard Hughes in avoiding the limelight,” London’s Telegraph wrote in August 2007, comparing him with the American mogul who was famed for keeping a lot to himself.
Ratcliffe is the founder, chairman and majority shareholder of Ineos, a company that deals in fuels and a range of chemicals.
And if Kipchoge was daring by testing the limits of marathon running, Ratcliffe is the embodiment of daredevilry — in his exploits in the business world, and in his adventures across the globe.
A few years ago, for instance, the lanky tycoon (he is six-feet-four-inches tall) was on a three-month motorbike trip in southern Africa, and at some point he broke three bones in his leg.
A doctor who saw the X-ray of the fractures advised that he immediately stops the adventure, but Ratcliffe could hear none of it. “He’s an extraordinary character under pressure,” the doctor told Financial Times (FT) in 2014, adding: “I think he relishes a bit of personal discomfort sometimes.”
Ratcliffe has also travelled to the North and South poles, some of the coldest and toughest places to access. He has also participated in various marathons before.
The investor, who turns 67 on October 18, ranks high on the rich lists. On Friday morning, he was 110th on the Forbes list of the world’s richest billionaires.
Forbes said his real-time net worth by Friday was $11.1 billion (Sh1.1 trillion). Jeff Bezos ($131 billion) of Amazon was on top of the list, followed by Microsoft’s Bill Gates ($96.5 billion).
And according to a "Sunday Times Rich List" released in May this year, Ratcliffe was the richest man in Britain, with his net worth estimated to be £21 billion (Sh2.7 trillion) — this is a few billions south of Kenya’s Sh3.02 trillion budget for the current financial year.
With private jets, two super yachts, among other coveted possessions, Ratcliffe, through his company, has recently developed a passion common with people in his league — owning sports clubs.
Ineos is the current owner of OGC Nice, a team that plays in France’s top league, Ligue 1. Ineos took over the ownership of OGC Nice in August at a cost of Sh11.5 billion.
After the acquisition, the BBC quoted Ratcliffe saying the club appeared the most viable buy. “We have looked at a lot of clubs in the manner we look at businesses in Ineos — for value and potential — and Nice fulfils that criteria,” he said.
Two years earlier, Ineos bought FC Lausanne, a club that plays in the Swiss Super League.
Ratcliffe told the BBC in August that the purchase of Lausanne was a tough lesson for them. “We made some mistakes at Lausanne, but we are fast learners. These have been rectified and we are already seeing the benefits,” he said.
“Clubs need to be successful off the pitch, as well as on it, and Nice will be no different.” Last year, Ratcliffe was in the rumour mill in England after he reportedly made a Sh258 billion bid for English Premier League side Chelsea.
He is a season-ticket holder at Chelsea and a Manchester United fan. After all, Ratcliffe spent the first 10 years of his life in Failsworth, a suburb of Manchester.
When he was 10, his family moved to Yorkshire, where he attended Beverly Grammar School then later joined Birmingham University, where he studied chemical engineering.
Ineos started operations in England in 1998 and with a series of acquisitions, it grew to be a behemoth that now has 34 businesses under its umbrella.
With all his measured approach to publicity, Ratcliffe took part in shooting a video with Kipchoge during the launch of the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in May.
The video is available on YouTube. In the video, Ratcliffe expresses his adoration for Kipchoge. “Eliud is the finest marathon runner the world has ever produced,” he says.
He also discusses the modalities of the race, among them having a crowd around him to “lift his spirit as he goes around”.
Ineos deliberately set the launch date for May 6, the date in 1954 when a man ran for a mile in under four minutes. That man is Sir Roger Bannister, a Briton who died aged 89 in 2018.
Instructively, it was on May 6 on the year before that Kipchoge took part in another attempt to run the marathon in under two hours — the Breaking2 project by American sportswear maker, Nike.
Ineos’ deliberateness on setting the date is but an extension of the traits of Ratcliffe. He became an entrepreneur at the age of 40 after working with a number of firms, among them Esso, Courtaulds, and Advent International.
“Its production network spans 183 sites in 26 countries throughout the world,” says a post on the Ineos website.
Another post on ineos159challenge.com explains the products they deal in, saying their products “make the modern world possible”, and that “most people rely on them every day”.
“Our chemicals help make mains water safe to drink and our plastics produce the pipes which deliver that water or gas. Our gas heats homes, hospitals and schools. Our polymers and materials, essential for carbon fibre, help create lighter cars and planes, which are more fuel efficient, reducing CO2 emissions.
“And our composites, synthetic oils and solvents are vital components in renewable energy technologies. From phones to medical equipment, clothing to solar panels, computers to insulation to medicines — our products save lives, reduce environmental impact and make the world a better place,” says the post.
Such a wide portfolio must have been a wild dream for Ratcliffe when he plunged into the business world in 1992 by partnering with a former chemicals executive to form Inspec.
One of their first deals was to buy a chemical business from oil company BP. “Despite having two young sons, Ratcliffe mortgaged his house and put all his money into the deal,” the FT reported in 2014.
Six years later, Ratcliffe marshalled all the resources he had to buy a site in Antwerp, Belgium, and that was the birth of Ineos. He would later sell first business.
With Ineos, Ratcliffe — partnering with three other investors — acquired a number of businesses from various companies.
“In the first 10 years, Ineos made more than 20 acquisitions, snapping up unloved commodity businesses from the likes of ICI, BP and BASF as these giants themselves restructured,” FT reports.
Their acquisition strategy, which targeted struggling entities, is something off the textbooks for corporate managers. “Once in charge, Ineos would go in hard, stopping spending overnight. Many of the companies would have excessively high costs and the aim was to stop waste immediately,” writes FT.
As the acquisition negotiations happened, Ratcliffe’s other side became apparent, with some unionists nicknaming him “Dr No” for his hardline stance.
“His negotiating tactics are not loved by everyone and people don’t like it when pain is inflicted,” an industry contemporary told FT in 2014.
Regardless of his tactics, Ineos grew, and in 2010 they made the decision to leave the UK for Switzerland in a bid to lower their corporate tax rate. They restored the headquarters to London in 2016.
In 2018, he relocated his personal wealth to Monaco, whose tax laws are not as restrictive as other parts of Europe.
As he continues to make strides in the business world, Ratcliffe has been involved in pro-health campaigns, especially the “Go Run for Fun” and the “Daily Mile” initiatives that encourage children to be more active through short-distance running.
Ratcliffe himself is a fitness fanatic. FT reported in 2014 that his routine includes a one-hour morning workout in the gym and running for 10 kilometres before lunch.
The Ineos head of sports, Mr John Mayock, says in a promotional video for the Ineos 1:59 campaign that Kipchoge’s run is part of the campaign to have fitter children.
“One of the key things with the Ineos 1:59 Challenge with Eliud’s support is that we really want to use that as a legacy to get every school around the world and children involved in running, thinking about their health and well-being,” says Mayock, a former Olympic athlete.
In the Daily Mile programme by Ineos, “1.7 million children currently take part every day”, according to their website.
For his prosperity in the business world, Ratcliffe was made a knight bachelor in the Queen’s birthday honours of 2018.
The Telegraph reported in March that Ratcliffe’s reclusive nature has slowly been fading away, largely because of his interest in acquiring sporting entities.
“It seems clear then that whatever his penchant for privacy in the past, Ratcliffe is beginning to enjoy the limelight now,” said the publication as it commented on Ineos’ takeover of Team Sky, a cycling franchise, in March.
Team Sky, now Team Ineos, has Kenyan-born British cyclist Chris Froome — a multiple winner of Tour de France — as one of its top riders.
Telegraph also discussed Ratcliffe’s other trait in its Team Sky purchase story. “He likes to win, something which creates its own pressures. With money not an issue … and few commercial distractions, there will be no excuse for failure,” noted the newspaper.