Richard Branson

Charismatic entrepreneur Richard Branson (born 1950) became well known when his daredevil business tactics were upstaged by his death defying antics as a sportsman.

Founder and mastermind of the Virgin business enterprise, Richard Branson hewed a reputation as one of the most popular personalities in all of England. The charismatic Branson attracted crowds and media attention everywhere, not only in the course of his business exploits but also for his adventurous lifestyle. At the height of his popularity, Branson's name was touted for prime minister, and even monarch, of his native Britain. Tongue-and-cheek aside, Branson's financial escapades were serious business, and his adventurous personal nature projected an aura that seemed larger than life.

Richard Branson was born on July 18, 1950 into a middle class family in the English county of Surrey. Branson was the oldest of three siblings. His father, Edward (Ted) Branson was an attorney, in the tradition of the Branson family ancestry. Most agree that Branson inherited his Nordic looks as well as his adventurous spirit from his mother, Eve Branson, a one-time dancer and actress, and a former flight attendant. So energetic and spirited was Eve Branson, that she learned to fly gliders at a time when few women drove cars. She flew so well, in fact, that she trained with the Royal Air Force (RAF) cadets for duty during the Second World War. The Branson children were raised to be hearty, active, and brave.

Richard Branson was not adventurous by nature. Out of concern, his mother left him alone in the countryside one day, with instructions to find his own way home through the fields of Devon. Branson was only four at the time, and a neighboring farmer eventually discovered the boy and alerted the Bransons to retrieve their son. Young Richard, who spent that day chasing butterflies, was enamored by the exhilaration of freedom at such a young age. Years later, when his parents enrolled him at Stowe boarding school in Buckingham, he found the environment too restrictive. He dropped out of high school and moved to London, where he made his living as a publisher and later opened a retail record business.

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A Young Entrepreneur

After Branson arrived in London in 1967, at the age of 17, he undertook his first business venture. He published a magazine called Student, for young activists. The first issue was published in January 1968, and reached a printing of 100,000 copies at the peak of its popularity. Student was an excellent business vehicle, and resulted in a positive business experience for Branson.

Branson started his second business in 1970, a mail-order retail record company called Virgin Mail. The unfortunate occurrence of a British postal strike in 1971 forced Branson to realign his fledgling record company from a mail-order supplier into a successful discount record retailer in London. Branson's initial ventures into capitalism were encouraging, but generated "red ink" at the onset. As Branson saw his business debt swell to approximately $20,000 he devised an illicit pseudo-export scam that allowed him to evade the tax payments on his merchandise. For a time he eluded the authorities but was eventually brought to justice and to jail. It cost him (and his mother) $45,000 in bail to secure his freedom. In time and with perseverance he worked his way out of accrued business debts of $90,000, including fines and back taxes owed to the government.

Virgin Records

In 1973, Branson expanded his business interests and established Virgin Records in part to provide a recording vehicle for a talented friend, Mike Oldfield. Through the new Virgin Records enterprise, Oldfield recorded an album featuring the tune "Tubular Bells," and the record became the soundtrack for the classic horror movie, The Exorcist.

In 1977, Branson signed the Sex Pistols to Virgin Records, a shrewd business move that plunged the small recording company into the mainstream of the punk rock era. Censors from radio and other media immediately banned one of the Sex Pistols earliest hits with Virgin Records, an irreverent tune called "God Save the Queen." The Sex Pistols, determined to make their music heard, retaliated with a "free concert" on the Thames River that resulted in 100,000 in record sales within one week. Following the scandalous success of the Sex Pistols, Virgin Records easily attracted a variety of the most popular artists of the times, including Boy George and the Culture Club, who sold 1.4 million records in the U.K. in 1983. Branson went on to sign contracts with singers and guitarists including Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Janet Jackson, and the Rolling Stones. By 1983, Branson's Virgin empire included 50 diverse companies.

In keeping with his radical business ethic, Branson established an international airline in June 1984, with a single leased airplane. The airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited, survived the threat of foreclosure and in time grew into the world's third-largest transatlantic carrier.

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Secrets of Success

Virgin enterprises are a conglomeration of wholly owned subsidiaries and outside partnerships. Branson maintains a controlling interest in every company that he starts. Virgin interests include retail stores, a travel group, an entertainment group, a hotel enterprise, financial services, cinemas, radio stations, and Virgin European Airways. Branson runs the empire from the old villa where he lives with his family in London's Holland Park. Each business is a separate venture. He oversees each startup company, then delegates management and moves on. Branson relies on creative investment schemes and extremely private holdings. He retains control as CEO of his travel ventures, even as he acquires capital for his railway system venture. Branson strategically keeps each company small and controllable, despite the conglomerate structure, and operates each enterprise as an individual small business. His companies offer employees a pleasant work environment and the renegade Branson eschews computers; informal communication is the hallmark of the Virgin regime. The personal needs of employees take precedence, and even at times of dire financial straits, Branson humanely sidesteps layoffs.

Virgin Travel Interests

In 1992, after 22 years at the helm, Branson reluctantly sold his Virgin Music Group to Thorn-EMI for a sum near one billion dollars. He made the sacrifice in the interests of Virgin Airlines which was in a state of financial disaster. Branson used the money in part to upgrade the airline with new amenities and services including seat-back videos, complimentary headsets, toiletries, stand-up bars, full-sized sleeper seats; luxury services such as masseuses, manicure, and free ground transportation by limousine were also introduced. British Airways, number one competitor to Virgin Atlantic, resorted to unduly aggressive competition against Branson's business savvy. In January 1993, Branson won a judgment of nearly one million dollars in a suit against British Airways for unfair competition.

Traditional investors fail to comprehend Branson's privately held Virgin resources that comprise an intricate web of trusts and holding companies which span the Atlantic Ocean into the British Virgin Isles. In 1998, Branson further unnerved financial pundits when he invested his own private interests into a series of rail lines including British Rail. As with many Branson business endeavors, the investments were in conflict with every traditional business tactic and mainstream corporate practice, yet Branson ably accomplished his ends. Branson's unique business style prompted David Sheff to comment in Forbes that Branson is, "One of the world's most fertile businessmen [with] highly unorthodox methods."

In 1999, and less than 30 years after the original conception of the Branson Virgin businesses, Branson boasted over 200 Virgin Megastores worldwide and a soft drink business-Virgin Cola-in direct competition with Coca-Cola. All told, Branson employed 24,000 employees in 150 companies, with revenues totaling an estimated five billion dollars each year from the entire Virgin Group-including the music stores and airline. The Virgin empire was last valued at an estimated $1.5 billion, and was the largest privately owned business in England.

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Adventure and Thrill Seeker

Branson is as well known for his death-defying "near-miss" accidents as for his business acumen. In 1987, he made his "virgin" parachute jump just weeks before embarking on a trans-Atlantic balloon voyage with co-pilot Per Lindstrand in the largest balloon ever made-replete with eight burners and twelve miles of fabric. In preparation for the balloon flight, Branson took a skydiving lesson and nearly killed himself when he inadvertently unhooked his own parachute. A courageous jump instructor rescued Branson in mid-air. Shortly afterward, Branson made the balloon trip from Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, across the Atlantic to Ireland for the first trans-Atlantic crossing in a balloon. Branson attempted a landing upon arrival in Ireland, but encountered severe problems with the wind and narrowly escaped a harrowing death in the icy Atlantic Ocean.

In 1991, Branson became the first person to cross the Pacific Ocean in a balloon. He traveled nearly 7,000 miles between Japan and Canada, and clocked speeds as high as 240 miles per hour. The trip was fraught with tense moments, including the loss of two fuel tanks. The loss of balloon altitude control caused the crew to reach treacherous altitudes, well over 40,000 feet. Pilot and co-pilot later missed their landing goal by 2,000 miles. Originally headed for Los Angeles, they landed in a remote part of the North Canadian Rocky Mountains instead.

In January 1997, Branson made one of his first attempts to successfully circumnavigate the earth in a hot-air balloon. By December 1998, he was on his fourth attempt. Along with Lindstrand and Steve Fossett, Branson set out to be the first in history to accomplish the feat. Fossett and Branson-one-time adversaries in the race to circumnavigate-left Marrakech, crossed through Asia Minor and Asia and into the Pacific before a hurricane downed the crew off the coast of Hawaii.

For these and other exploits, Branson was cited by Business Week, as a new breed of "daredevil" CEO that needs to be curtailed by boards of directors in the interests of shareholders, in order to forestall pending doom that often accompanies such antics. Branson certainly fit the bill; he is an avid skier and speedboat racer, in addition to his skydiving and ballooning exploits.

In 1979, Branson purchased an island in the Caribbean. The land parcel, called Necker, consists of 74 acres. He purchased the land for $300,000, and since that time invested $20 million into customizing the island complete with a ten-bedroom house, two guest houses, a desalinization plant, generator facilities, and imported foliage to intersperse with the indigenous neckerberry bushes that give the island its name. He rents the island for as much as $20,500 per night. His guests include many of the most prominent personalities in the world: the late Diana, Princess of Wales, director Steven Spielberg, actor Mel Gibson, and movie and television maven Oprah Winfrey.

A media phenomenon, Branson remains unaffected and dresses casually, in comfortable clothes. He was married to Kristen Tomassi in 1972; they divorced in 1976. In 1989, Branson wed Joan Templeman of Glasgow-He arrived at the wedding ceremony hanging from a helicopter. The couple has two children, Holly and Sam. Branson published his autobiography, Losing My Virginity, in 1998.

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Further Reading on Richard Branson

Business Week, January 11, 1999, p. 50(1).

Forbes February 24, 1997, p. S94(7).

Management Today, April 1998, p. 38(5).

People, November 2, 1998 p. 141.

Playboy, February 1995, p. 114(5).

Sports Illustrated, February 12, 1999, p. 186.

Time, June 24, 1996, p. 50(4).