Having been burnt twice by going public with hopes to buy a Premier League giant in recent months, this time Sir Jim Ratcliffe is keeping his cards close to his chest.
But with Britain's most ambitious billionaire sporting investor, it is always better to expect the unexpected.
For the first 20 years of its existence no-one except business junkies had really heard of the chemicals multinational Ineos, let alone the man who owned it. When Ratcliffe received a knighthood in the 2018 Birthday Honours, he was anointed Britain’s richest man (he has since slipped down the rankings), and bought Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup team for £110 million.
Famously, that first investment came after Ratcliffe, whose empire has been worth in excess of £20bn, met up with Ainslie, simply because he fancied having a drink with him. “Most expensive gin and tonic of my life,” he joked.
Ineos’s extraordinary sporting land grab over the last four years – as well as his sailing team, Ratcliffe has hoovered up Team Sky, Nice Football Club, sponsored Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two hour marathon challenge, the All Blacks, bought a stake in Mercedes F1 and launched an 11th-hour and ultimately doomed bid for Chelsea – has been compared to that of Red Bull, another privately-owned billion dollar multinational with a huge sporting portfolio.
Ratcliffe’s reasons for investing in all these properties, however, are less easy to fathom. Red Bull is a consumer brand. It sells billions of cans of energy drink every year. It wants visibility and brand recognition; hence its investment in F1 and extreme sports. No-one ‘buys’ Ineos.
In fact, Ratcliffe outright denied that brand recognition was of any concern to him in an interview with this newspaper in August 2018. He has changed his tune a little on that score since then. There are now a few Ineos-owned brands – including the Grenadier 4x4 vehicle into which his company has invested £1bn, and clothing company Belstaff, now run by former Ineos Grenadiers CEO Fran Millar. But that still does not seem to be the primary reason.
Nor is turning a profit out of them. None of these teams or sponsorships are necessarily great investments, although Manchester United certainly are a money-making machine.
What is behind it, then? A desire to use sport to soften the company’s image is clearly part of it. Ineos was accused of “greenwashing” when it bought into sailing and cycling. And it is true the company has used its various sporting partnerships to highlight the work it does on tackling pollution, or research into biodegradable plastic. Or to trumpet its Daily Mile, an initiative which encourages primary schools and nurseries to take children running outside for 15 minutes each day.
But investing in F1 – the most toxic sport on the planet – was hardly going to appease the green lobby. And besides, Ratcliffe is hardly afraid of a little negative publicity.
United would be the crown jewel in Ratcliffe's empire
This is a man who faced down the unions at Grangemouth, had little time for environmental campaigners in Yorkshire in 2019 when they protested his efforts to drill in a number of locations across the county (Ratcliffe dismissed groups such as Frack Free United as “ignorant”, describing them as a “noisy, minuscule minority”), and was not afraid of the court of public opinion when he took his billions off to Monaco to live in tax exile in 2020. Ironically, it was estimated that move would save him £4bn, exactly the amount he bid for Chelsea in April.
Ratcliffe does not back down, whether it is the green lobby or a business rival. Back in April, Ineos handed the Government research showing Britain is sitting on 50 years' worth of shale gas, lobbying to restart fracking which he believes could boost the country's domestic energy supplies.
The son of a joiner and an office worker who grew up on a council estate in Failsworth, Greater Manchester – hence his lifelong following of United – Ratcliffe is a proud, unapologetic industrialist and engineer. A self-made billionaire who is now indulging his passions.
Ratcliffe is a self-confessed sports junkie. He has run marathons, trekked to both poles and ridden across South Africa on a motorbike. Now he is busy building one of the largest portfolios in world sport, with Sir Dave Brailsford running it as director of sport (again, Ratcliffe cared little for public opinion when choosing to stick by a man who had been tarnished by the accusations levelled at Team Sky).
United, if he gets it, would be the crown jewel and there are obvious reasons why his interest is sparking such excitement among Manchester United supporters. His own history also suggests that the prospect of going into battle with the Glazers will not cow him.