The adulation was real. Thousands of OGC Nice football fans in full-throated song, chanting the name of the new club owner who they hope will turn their side from a midsized French Ligue 1 team into a European giant capable of challenging for the Champions League.

The object of this outpouring at the Allianz Riviera stadium was Jim Ratcliffe: a 67-year-old publicity-shy Briton who has made his fortune, estimated to be £18bn, from petrochemicals. October’s raucous reception — ahead of Nice’s match against Qatar-backed Paris Saint-Germain — came just weeks after Ineos, his industrial group, completed its €110m takeover of the club.

“You’re stood on the pitch and you hear this noise . . . it’s pretty special,” says Bob Ratcliffe, Sir Jim’s brother and chief executive of Ineos Football. “10,000 fans chanting [his] name. You realise you’ve bought a pretty significant sporting asset.”

Nice is not the only asset bought over the past three years. Ineos also owns the Tour de France-winning cycling group formerly known as Team Sky; funds the UK’s America’s Cup sailing team led by Olympic sailing champion Ben Ainslie; owns Swiss football club Lausanne-Sport; is lead sponsor of the Mercedes Formula One team; and funded the successful attempt by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge to run a marathon in less than two hours. In total the company has spent around £400m on its sporting enterprises. And it could spend more yet.

These endeavours bear little relation to its core business: a privately owned collection of refineries, offshore gasfields and chemical works with $60bn in turnover that employ 22,000 people. Ineos is one of the biggest suppliers of the basic building blocks for everyday products such as plastics, paint and medicines. Jim Ratcliffe owns 60 per cent of the company, the remainder shared between co-founders Andy Currie and John Reece.

Other businesses have spent more on a portfolio of teams, but few have gathered such a wide array of sporting assets and in such a short period of time. Those involved at Ineos suggest they are working towards a new model for sport: a constellation of professional athletes, coaches and experts who assist one another to win the world’s toughest contests. This strategy is being watched closely across elite competitions.

“There is a common theme in what they are trying to do in terms of performance and technology and linking it to the Ineos brand,” says Tim Crow, an independent sports marketing adviser. “The scale of what it is doing is pretty spectacular.”

But environmental activists, critical of the company’s core business, believe the Ineos boss may have an ulterior motive. They argue that he is attempting to use sport to “greenwash” his company’s image and divert attention from its environmental impact. An operator of inherently polluting industries, Ineos has drawn fire from campaigners for its ecological impact and support of shale gas extraction via fracking in the UK.

In 2018 one of its sites in England received the lowest possible compliance score — though six others were given A or B ratings.

“He uses sports to greenwash his fracking [and] dirty plastics business,” says Andy Gheorghiu, a policy adviser at Food & Water Europe, an NGO. “[It] has worked . . . A lot of people know Ineos but only because of their sports investments and we have to tell them what this company is really about.”

Campaigners allege that this approach mirrors the “sportswashing” strategy that human rights groups accuse countries such as Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 football World Cup , of employing.

Ineos rejects the charges, saying it is a responsible environmental actor and that it achieved its “highest safety performance ever last year despite acquiring more businesses whose procedures and rules on safety and standards often differ”.

The group insists its investments are about “a love of sport”. It argues that, if anything, the sports investments draw unwanted attention to a company that executives once joked was “the biggest company you’ve never heard of”. The Ineos logo now regularly appears on television screens, splashed across the jerseys of famous athletes.

Sir Jim declined to be interviewed for this article, but those close to him say the spending is best seen as the passion project of someone who became rich late in life. A fan of Manchester United, he is also a keen marathon runner, skier, cyclist, mountaineer and sailor.

“Why is Ineos involved in sports?” asks Bob Ratcliffe. “Because Ineos has been a very successful company, the guys that own it are interested in sport and it’s a way of spending dividends . . . I think to go in the car when you’re on the Tour de France is amazing. To frighten yourself to death when you’re on a boat with Ben Ainslie, it’s pretty enjoyable . . . [Ineos’s owners are] not opera guys.”

A decade ago Sir Jim came close to losing everything. A chemical engineering graduate who founded Ineos in 1998, he was late to entrepreneurialism but knew how to rapidly expand his business. He used expensive debt such as junk bonds to buy unwanted chemical production assets from companies such as ICI, BP and BASF. More recently Ineos expanded into North Sea oil and gasfields to become an integrated energy-to-chemicals conglomerate.

But in 2009, banks and hedge funds had set their sights on breaking Ineos up. It was still generating cash and had not missed any interest payments, but the sharp fall in oil prices after the global financial crisis meant the group was technically in breach of rules set by lenders. It survived by renegotiating its $8.5bn debt pile, but ended up paying hundreds of millions of pounds in extra interest charges and fees — as a result Ineos reduced its reliance on borrowing.

Making waves: Ineos in sport

£60bn

In annual turnover for the Ineos group, which makes everything from plastics to paints and medicines

Over time Sir Jim has established a reputation for ruthlessness. “He’s a hard negotiator,” says one investment banker who has worked with him. “You want to do business with him, but you also feel a little bit nervous when they [Ineos] are involved because of how competitive and aggressive they are.”

His relative anonymity was blown in 2010 when Ineos relocated its headquarters to Switzerland after the then Labour government rejected a request to defer a £350m VAT bill after sales were hit in the recession. The move saved the group — which has since returned to the UK — £400m in tax over five years but angered unions.

The conglomerate is spending €3bn to build new plants at its vast petrochemicals complex in Antwerp which it says will reduce emissions and replace imported raw materials for its chemical plants.

“Sponsoring sports doesn’t do anything for his chemicals business,” says Graham Copley, founding partner at C-MACC an industry research firm. “The average punter doesn’t know what Ineos does, and it doesn’t affect his sales as a chemicals producer. [But] it is throwing an awful lot of positive PR at the company.”

Ineos’s first move in sport was a disaster. Just months after buying Lausanne-Sport in 2017, the club was relegated from the top tier of Swiss football.

“We now look back and say there was a certain naivety about our approach,” says Bob Ratcliffe, a former finance and insurance executive. “We made some mistakes but we made them at a single-digit level in terms of buying headline players, overpaying, overcompensating and not finding the right people to give us good advice.”

Ineos changed tack. Sir Jim scoured Europe, searching for another team that could more regularly compete in the Champions League — the continent’s premier tournament — while adopting principles that had served well in its chemicals business. Behind the privately owned group’s success is a relentless focus on keeping costs down.

Ineos executives toured the training grounds of English Premier League club Chelsea, but balked after owner Roman Abramovich demanded a price in excess of £2bn. A bid was considered for Newcastle United — the subject now of a separate £350m takeover offer from a consortium that includes Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — but rejected as uneconomical.

“How do you get to a £2bn plus valuation for [a club in] a league with total revenue of £5bn and total net operating profit before tax of £500m,” says Mr Ratcliffe. “How does that ever reconcile itself?”

Believing the smart money looks beyond the overpriced Premier League, Ineos settled on Nice. Its executives think that relatively little spending on players can push the club — sixth in the league before matches were suspended on Friday due to coronavirus — towards qualifying for one of the country’s three Champions League places.

In contrast to many big corporations, Ineos runs a lean central office, staffed by just 40 people. Mirroring the structure in the group’s chemicals arm, its sports teams are considered part of this “federal” network of businesses, each controlled by powerful managers. But Sir Jim is hands-on, and meets each team leader every six weeks to grill them on progress.

Teams are encouraged to help one another and share expertise. Meteorologists from the sailing team informed the decision of when Mr Kipchoge should start his attempt on the sub-two hour marathon. The cycling team is being advised by the Mercedes F1 group on how to improve aerodynamics, while some cyclists have trained at Nice’s facilities.

“Every company has its CEO and leadership team, but they run their business fairly independently,” says David Brailsford, principal at Team Ineos cycling. “But if there’s something that you feel like you’re leading in or something that you’re learning, you’re expected to share that across the other companies,” he says. “That’s the model he’s promoting with us in sport.”

In football, Mr Ratcliffe says Ineos will evaluate bids for other European teams in the future. This could allow it to replicate the multi-club ownership model deployed by the likes of Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, which also has heavy influence over the running of RB Leipzig in Germany, and City Football Group, which controls Manchester City alongside a network of sister clubs worldwide.

The concept is that all football clubs in the network benefit from shared scouting networks, data analysis teams and coaches. But at Ineos, each club could get an extra edge from experts in different sporting disciplines, such as nutritionists, physiotherapists and other technical experts.

Not everybody is convinced. “Successful businessmen — always men — usually believe that they can manage a football business better than the managers who came before them,” says Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan.

“History shows that this belief is almost always false. The problem is that the secret of a profitable business is typically the discovery of a mechanism to isolate it from the forces of competition — but this formula does not extend to football, where intense competition is inescapable.”

There are risks beyond losing matches. Ineos took over the road cycling team only after the broadcaster Sky announced in December 2018 it would stop backing it amid allegations that it manipulated medical rules to allow riders to use drugs within the bounds of regulations.

Ineos has stepped in to fund it despite fierce criticism from UK parliamentarians and clean sport advocates about the team’s approach to anti-doping procedures.

Sir David — who has faced criticism from anti-doping and cycling officials for his leadership of the team since its inception in 2009 — says Ineos has drawn a “line in the sand” on past controversies, but added: “What comes under our time with Ineos and under our watch, that is very much something we discuss and look at.”

The company insists there are no financial risks. Ineos does not expect to make money from sport. People close to him say Sir Jim is chasing emotional returns over financial ones. It is a luxury that few sporting outfits can afford.

The only “risk is you don’t achieve your objectives”, says Mr Ratcliffe, the billionaire’s brother. “And [that] we talk about it more than we deliver.”

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