Julie Tucker
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From Zero to Hero: Sir Jim Ratcliffe

Self-made billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe turned his life around to become the richest businessman in Britain. After making his fortune in the chemicals industry, today he’s worth an estimated £18.2 billion, according to the Sunday Times Rich List 2019.

He is the chief executive and chairman of the biggest chemicals company in the world, the Ineos chemicals group, that has an estimated turnover of $80 billion. Yet before being named as the UK’s richest man, Ratcliffe’s name was largely unknown outside business circles, as he preferred to keep a low profile.

The Sunday Times described him as “publicity shy” when he became the richest man on 13th May 2018, with a net worth of £21.05 billion. He received a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2018 for services to business and investment.

Early years
Ratcliffe was born in the town of Failsworth, in Greater Manchester, on 18th October 1952. Along with his family, he lived in a council house until he was ten, with his father working as a joiner and his mother in an accounts office. His father went on to run a factory that made laboratory furniture.

His fascination with industry reportedly stemmed from his childhood days, when he could see multiple factory smokestacks from his bedroom window. After the family moved to Yorkshire, Ratcliffe attended Beverley Grammar School, in the market town of Beverley, where his interest in science and engineering developed.

Living in Hull ‘til he was 18, he then studied chemical engineering at Birmingham University. His parents encouraged him to make the most of his abilities – it was “frowned upon” if the children’s capabilities weren’t met, according to his brother, Bob.

Back in the 1970s, there were less choices for further and higher education. You could choose the “red-brick” universities, the polytechnics, or get a job! Armed with his chemical engineering degree, he went on to study for an MBA at London Business School.

After working in industry at Courtaulds and Esso, he was headhunted by the private equity group, Advent International. He described this move as one of life’s “crossroads”, that spurred him into doing something for himself.

He began looking for investment opportunities, until in 1992, he joined forces with former chemicals executive John Hollowood to lead a buyout of a chemicals business from BP. Despite having two young sons by this time, Ratcliffe risked everything to succeed.

After mortgaging his house, he ploughed every penny into the deal. He said it was a “critical part” of his career path, because if it went wrong, he had lost everything, including all his money and his career. After a year of deliberating, his wife and family agreed to take the risk together.

With the backing of Advent, the deal went ahead, forming Inspec, with Hollowood as chairman and Ratcliffe the chief executive. Hollowood described his business partner as “very stubborn and very determined”.

Ratcliffe believed in the “ownership philosophy”, when venture capitalists had to put some of their own money in. He said commitment and responsibility were good – an ethos he instilled when he went on to launch Ineos in 1998.

He built the chemicals company up from scratch, after again risking everything he had to raise the finance, with a combination of venture capital equity and loans. The company manufactures the raw materials for products that we use in our day-to-day lives, including everything from toothpaste and bottle tops, to cars and computers.

In the first decade, Ineos made more than 20 acquisitions, buying unwanted commodity businesses from the likes of BP, ICI and BASF when these industry giants restructured. Ineos took on their debts to fund the purchases and reduced them through immediate measures, such as cost savings.

Ineos went in hard, stopped spending immediately to cut the companies’ often excessively high costs and stopped waste from the outset. It was described in business as a “short, sharp, shock tactic”.

Ratcliffe’s business grew steadily and today, 21 years later, Ineos is an industrial giant, with 51 production facilities spanning 11 countries, including five in Britain. In 2011, sales of $43 billion escalated Ineos to one of the world’s top ten chemical companies.

The Sunday Times Rich List 2019 names Ratcliffe as the third richest businessman in the UK, taking into account identifiable wealth such as shares in companies, property, land and other assets, including art.

Yet the hub of his business empire is a small and innocuous office block in Switzerland, where the entrepreneur’s office isn’t flashy or luxurious. He retains his low-key persona and remains a very private man, despite his global success.

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© Michael McGurk / Alamy Stock Photo

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