How now, Jim Ratcliffe?
Company History Shows Shale Crisis, Too, Can Be Mastered
With prices for crude oil now below $60 a barrel, analysts are questioning the viability of many shale projects. But while the breathtaking price plunge may have Saudi sheiks and America's shale barons sweating in their sandals or socks, in Switzerland Ineos' top brass is keeping a cool head - and not because of wintry weather.
Clearly, the risks of betting on the wrong horse are worrying to some, but Ineos appears to thrive on risk. Over more than two decades, through cleverly orchestrated MBOs - none of which blew up in his face - chairman and prime mover Jim Ratcliffe has built a petrochemicals empire from assets other companies no longer found sexy, or even financially sound.
Since the late 1990s Ineos has bought, and occasionally resold, assets once belonging to other major players - from BP to BASF, from ICI to Solvay, from Norsk Hydro to Lanxess. If industry deals were formulated as classified ads, they might read: Got a chemical business to sell? Call Jim.
Not even the financial crisis of 2008-2010 - when unsecured debts threatened to sink Ineos and the company's creditors were also in danger of going under - stopped Ratcliffe's relentless drive to make the world safe for petrochemicals.
Since engineering a management buyout of Inspec from BP in 1992, and six years later luring Inspec's commodity business into a new company, Ineos, the Manchester-bred top manager seems to have become increasingly skilled at sniffing the right deal at the right time and stacking the chips on the gambling table accordingly.
How many corporate chieftains could convince creditors to take a leap of faith on debts of over €7 billion? How many would have the stamina to declare "business as usual" during months-long EU probes of the successive buy-up of much of Europe's commodity plastics capacity? How many would be bold enough to ask for loans from the country they publicly turned their back on in scorn after it declined to reduce their corporate tax bill?
In the past Ratcliffe notoriously broadcast his message from the off, but especially after forcing a powerful UK union to its knees he has moved more firmly into the spotlight, appearing on a company YouTube channel, speaking at industry meetings and writing open letters to the EU executive. Whether he continues beating the drum for shale exploration if the market is in disarray is open. It does not seem unlikely, however.