In a rare interview, Jim Ratcliffe tells us about his vision for the 4×4 firm’s future.
Given its source is a 14th-century headmaster at Eton and Winchester, ‘Manners Maketh Man’ might be an unexpected mantra for a self-made chap who grew up in a council house in Manchester, but Sir Jim Ratcliffe likes the basic ethos behind it.
It’s why every Ineos employee is discreetly advised to acknowledge him with a cheery greeting and senior managers are expected to be brutally honest about performance. His company’s structure is famously lean, as is its HR department. Blusterers and bullshitters need not apply. Grit, rigour and humour are his other prerequisites, if you fancy it.
Aged 70 and not without his controversies, Ratcliffe is Britain’s richest man, with an estimated wealth of $70 billion. But his humble roots and the fact he found mega-success relatively late in life – Ineos was created when he was 46 – mean he retains a grounded sense of perspective.
“I’m not frightened by noughts,” he laughs.
He is, by any measure, a man who likes to take calculated risks: Ineos’s first acquisitions were underpinned by high-yield debt and were cast-off businesses from the likes of ICI and BP. The launch of the Grenadier must surely rank as another: more than £1bn (AUD$1.74bn) has been spent and at least three times that must be earmarked already before a single vehicle is delivered.
“What am I supposed to do, stare at my bank balance?” Ratcliffe chuckles when I ask why he keeps taking on more, from his core businesses to automotive plus Formula 1, cycling, sailing, football and more. “I do it because I enjoy it.”
Two nights in the same bed? He ponders. Not really. Slowing down? Why? Retirement? He scoffs. A succession plan? No need, he has at least 20 years in him. What about life insurance, given his love of skiing, fishing, motorcycling and outlandish adventures across the wilderness, in cars and boats?
“No point trying. I won’t stop doing what I want to, so they won’t cover me.”
This year, he wants to go across Mongolia to Beijing – around 3000km – with his mates in a handful of Grenadiers, 1920s Bentleys and a 1952 Land Rover.
We stray onto his car collection but eke only a bit out: his only F1 car is a 1996 Michael Schumacher Ferrari, there’s a Le Mans McLaren F1 GTR, a 250 GT California Spyder, a Ferrari 275 GTB and “a few older ones”, including those 1920s Bentleys.
“More good investments,” I smile. So quick he must mean it, he counters: “I bought them because I liked them. I won’t stop liking them, so I won’t sell them. They’re not investments.”
These are just glimpses, of course, but they give a flavour of the man and underline that he’s not just bankrolling Ineos Automotive but defining it. Success is far from certain, failure is still possible. But be in no doubt that it’s all being done on his own – remarkable – terms.
Exclusive interview: Why did Sir Jim Ratcliffe start a car firm?
Summarise the journey from that famous chat in the pub to today?
“The story really started before the pub. I’d been on safari, bouncing all over the place in a Land Rover Defender. My flight back to the UK was delayed, so I went for a curry and a beer with the guide, who I knew well. They have about 600 Defenders and he was crying: ‘They’re not going to make the Defender any more; what am I going to do?’ I asked him why he wasn’t buying Land Cruisers, and he just said that clients get bounced around too much; one had even been thrown out! The seed was sown… I guess you’re asking: ‘Would we make the same decision today as we did in 2016, knowing what we know today?’ The answer is yes.
Over the subsequent years we’ve been through numerous stage gates where we’ve evaluated the project and asked ourselves if it’s good enough to carry on with. The answer has always been yes. The car is good, and there’s a clear hole in the marketplace to sell it into.
“Of course, world events haven’t been helpful, and they have meant it’s taken longer than anticipated. Covid, Ukraine, Chinese lockdowns: they are costly in every sense. Financially, we thought it would cost us €1 billion (AUD$1.55bn), and it has cost €1.5bn (AUD$2.3bn).”
Is Ineos the brand or is Grenadier?
“When we started, we thought we’d call the car company Grenadier. But Ineos is now known for all sorts of sports activities around the world, which is why we chose to call the brand Ineos and the car Grenadier. It feels logical now; buying a car is a big decision, and people need to know that the people behind creating it have a sound reputation.
“I think we’ll finish up with a name for each car, not a number. Whether we look at favourite pub names or military brigades, I’m not sure! But I think we have a very clever name for the next car, which I won’t tell you. We only came up with it very recently, and we need to check we can use it, but it felt like one of those defining moments when someone said it.”
Given that you part-own the Mercedes-AMG F1 team and bought your factory from Mercedes-Benz, how did you end up with BMW engines?
“We have a really good relationship with BMW and we don’t occupy any space that it is in, so it seemed natural. A slight aside is that I ride a BMW R1200GS motorbike; it’s fabulous on and off road and you can beat the crap out of it without any issues. There’s a nice symmetry there with what we are trying to do.
“My main motivation was that I didn’t want small engines. A 2.0-litre wouldn’t do for power. We engaged with a number of people who had six-cylinder engines. We talked to BMW, Mercedes, Toyota. There’s no question they all have great engines, but as we talked, the BMW relationship just developed.
“That relationship probably swung it. We couldn’t be specific on order numbers or demand, so its support for the project and its unknowns really counted. Mercedes, of course, made a huge contribution with the deal to buy its factory in Hambach.”
You were going to build in the UK. Was the Hambach deal just too good to turn down?
“Essentially, yes. I won’t disclose details, but Ola [Källenius, Mercedes chairman] is a friend as well as co-owner of the F1 team. We often chat and he came to us with the idea. Demand was contracting for them, and Smart was taking a new direction, and we were offered a state-of-the-art factory and fully trained workforce at a price that was mutually beneficial.”
How does Mercedes view your arrival in automotive?
“Firstly, Mercedes isn’t short of orders for the G-Class: it sells all it can make, and many of them at €200,000. I have several, I love them, but they aren’t the Grenadier. The Grenadier occupies a very different space. The fact that Lewis [Hamilton] and George [Russell] have been allowed to drive the Grenadier on video shows you that we don’t see any competition between us.”
Why not stick with petrol and diesel in that case?
“The world is changing, and we can’t be late adopters. The technology is still developing, and that’s a risk, but we can’t wait until it’s fully mature to get into the market. That will be too late. We believe we can launch in 2026 with a car that is as good as anything, and from there keep developing at the cutting edge of the market. A 400km range gets you from London to Manchester; it should be possible for a car to cover that sort of distance by 2026.”
Why has being able to climb the Schöckl pass in Austria become a defining characteristic of your cars?
“Honestly, you think you have seen it all and then you see the Schöckl. It’s why Mercedes takes the G-Class there.”