Forbes lists 65-year-old Sunderland-born Financial Director John Reece as one of the 500 richest people in the world, with a net worth of $5.8bn (£4.9bn). A Cambridge-educated financial accountant, his wealth is largely derived from his shareholding in the Swiss energy, chemical, and manufacturing giant INEOS, where he’s been a top executive after joining from accountancy and consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2000.
This is not, as far as we are aware, an INEOS takeover or a direct investment by that company in our club. It is to be assumed that the proposed purchase of the Donald and Methven shares is a personal investment, based on his love of the club and the opportunity afforded by the biggest football institutions in the UK.
The nature of the investment is not yet clear, and whether - if the deal does go through - Reece would seek control of the club by offering to take Juan Sartori’s stake.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that there’s serious money and an active interest in sports investment sitting behind the rumoured acquisition of the 39 percent of Sunderland AFC that we know has been available on the market.
INEOS is a brand you might have seen sponsoring a variety of sporting events, including the Mercedes F1 team, the New Zealand Rugby Union, and the flagship British professional cycling team that was formerly known as Team Sky. They even have their own 4x4 vehicle - The Grenadier.
The company already directly owns three football clubs as part of its ‘federal’ business empire: OGC Nice in France, Swiss outfit FC Lausanne-Sport, and Racing Club Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, and it states its mission in the sport as follows:
The ambition is to have successful and sustainable football clubs with success in their respective leagues with the ability to reach European competition. At the same time it is expected that whilst the clubs are run federally like any other INEOS business they will work together to optimise opportunities. This can be expected to encompass: scouting, player assessment and acquisitions as well as medical and fitness.
A key focus is on the development of top young talent across all the clubs, providing the critical pathways for their development.
We are committed in the long-term to the development and growth of our clubs, our players and our coaching staff at all levels. To be sustainable franchises the clubs must also excel on their commercial activities.
The company chairman Sir James Ratcliffe, with whom Reece and Doncaster-born Andy Curry forms a three-man northern English leadership team at INEOS, is Britain’s richest man and Monaco tax-exile, who recently bid unsuccessfully to take over Chelsea, promising £1.75bn of investment over 10 years in the Stamford Bridge club.
In terms of the big beasts of global capitalism, they really don’t get much bigger than INEOS.
They own and operate much of the North Sea oil and gas infrastructure, including pipelines and processing plants, and as such, the company has been involved in several environmental issues, including being identified as the single largest contributor to Scottish carbon emissions in 2019, although they do boast of a 30% reduction in their group’s carbon emissions since 2018.
The company employs over 300 people at its polymers plant in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham. It recently has sought to reopen discussions with the UK Government regarding the fracking of natural gas and oil in England and Wales, after previously taking out injunctions against those seeking to stop the extraction of further hydrocarbons and the potential contamination of groundwater in the process.
Football supporters in the North East have become very aware of the term ‘sports washing’ over the last couple of years, largely in respect of human rights abuses by the Saudi owners of Newcastle United.
However, we too need to be aware of where the money potentially coming into our club has been made and the impact the industries that sit behind the wealth of our owners have on people and the planet.
As a brief reminder to those who might not be entirely cognisant of the climate crisis we face, the IPPC 2022 report makes stark and alarming reading:
Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability. Some development and adaptation efforts have reduced vulnerability. Across sectors and regions the most vulnerable people and systems are observed to be disproportionately affected. The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt (high confidence).
I am sure that Reece, along with the other senior leadership of INEOS, is very well aware that their industry is living on borrowed time and that, over the next half-century, it will need to be almost entirely dismantled.
The company has stated its commitment to be ‘part of the growing renewables revolution’ but added that ‘renewable technology is not yet reliable enough to take over and the UK will need gas for the next 30 years as it goes through the energy transition.’
Almost all of us are invested, in one way or another, in the oil and gas industry whether we like it or not. However, that shouldn’t stop us from being acutely aware and highly critical of its devastating impact on our climate and vital ecosystems.
The extractors and polluters cannot escape their responsibility for the emergency we all face, and whilst there are very few fortunes made without damaging external costs to other people or our shared environment, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye simply in order to ensure our football club has a better chance of success.
Nevertheless, that Swiss resident Reece is reportedly interested in investing some of his vast wealth back into the community that he grew up in, through his beloved Sunderland AFC, is undoubtedly a positive thing.
We have long hoped for a local lad made good (and there are very few other Wearsiders to have accumulated such a vast fortune) to come in and put their money behind our club.
This isn’t someone born into a hereditary fortune or a royal family looking to soften a tarnished reputation- it’s someone from our city with a well-known passion for our club. If he is successful in his share purchase, I have no reason to doubt that he will be a conscientious and trustworthy co-custodian alongside the commodities heir who currently occupies the chair in the Sunderland boardroom.