Until recently, Britain’s largest private company was almost unknown to the public. That changed in April when Ineos and the low-profile entrepreneur who owns it hit the headlines as workers went on strike at its Grangemouth refinery over plans to close their final-salary pension scheme. The refinery and petrochemicals facility were re-started after a two-day strike that sparked panic buying of fuel in parts of Scotland – Grangemouth is the only large oil refinery in the country, and any disruption can soon hit petrol supplies._x000D_ Ineos is the world’s third-largest chemicals company, and inherited Grangemouth as part of its £5.1 billion 2005 acquisition of Innovene, BP’s petrochemicals business, which quadrupled the group’s turnover overnight. In 2007, sales reached £18,824m, with profits of £1,506m, the biggest in the league table._x000D_ Founder and majority owner Jim Ratcliffe is one of Britain’s wealthiest men, ranked No 25 in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated personal fortune of £2.3 billion._x000D_ A chemical engineer and qualified accountant, Ratcliffe established Ineos a decade ago by leading a £91m buyout of Inspec’s chemicals division, backed by Aberdeen Murray Johnstone._x000D_ From his headquarters in a New Forest village, Ratcliffe set about building a multinational chemicals company by buying unwanted subsidiaries from large companies such as BP, BASF, ICI and Dow, and financing this expansion almost entirely with debt. He started by buying small-volume, high-value specialty chemicals businesses, but has moved into larger-volume commodity chemicals. These markets are very cyclical, and public companies often find it difficult to manage them. As a private investor holding 75% of the company, Ratcliffe can afford to take a longer view. Ineos now comprises 19 businesses, with a production network spanning 78 facilities in 20 countries. It makes more than 32m tonnes of petrochemicals and 20m tonnes of fuels a year. None of this is sold directly to consumers, but the basic chemicals Ineos makes end up in anything from plastic coatings for wood to the chlorine that makes drinking water safe. Ratcliffe is still acquiring – most recently buying Hydro Polymers for €600m and the Borealis petrochemical business in Norway for €240m in 2007. The credit crunch may slow down this expansion.
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