The rebel billionaire

There’s a hushed silence and 750 eager faces turn to watch a bronzed man walk to the podium, his golden hair swaying behind him and his face split by a dazzling smile. There is no white smoke or drum roll, but for the students and alumni of one of the world’s leading business schools, Sir Richard Branson is as close as it gets to a rock star.

Worth £3-billion and believed to be the ninth-richest man in the United Kingdom, the 55-year-old founder of the Virgin empire inspired a generation of entrepreneurs. With a hotline to the rich and famous and a lifestyle to lust after—dream house in Oxford, London mansion, his own Caribbean island, for God’s sake—he has been top of the speaker wish-list at London Business School (LBS) for years.
Only ex-president Bill Clinton sold out faster.

His aides describe him as akin to 19th-century businessmen adventurers. His empire of more than 250 companies covers everything from planes, trains and bridal gowns to space travel. He is involved in efforts to set up a team of peacemakers led by Nelson Mandela to solve the world’s problems and tried to fly around the world in a hot air balloon.

A few weeks ago, he pulled off his most lucrative deal when he sold Virgin Mobile, a virtual business chiefly valued for its brand association, to the cable group NTL for almost £1billion.

Yet, in person, the quietly spoken Branson is at odds with this swashbuckling persona. While the former United States president stirred the assembled wannabes at LBS by telling them they would never forgive themselves if they “locked their dreams in the back of a closet”, the casually dressed Branson tells them to worry about survival rather than “sorting out the world’s problems” for the first few years. When pressed, he says: “If capitalism is to be given a good name then, essentially, capitalists need to give back to society.”

When his US TV programme Rebel Billionaire performed poorly, Donald Trump sniped that his rival had “zero personality”. A dyslexic who dropped out of school at 16 to run his own magazine, Branson rarely gives speeches and prefers question-and-answer sessions.

The LBS event was the first of two on the day, with a second in the grounds of his country home. At one point, he told his audience of entrepreneurs that he had to school himself in public speaking when he started Virgin Atlantic 22 years ago. One executive whispered afterwards that “he must have dropped out of that one as well”.

In the 90-minute car journey between the two events, Branson manages to talk about remarkable things in a remarkably low-key way. He tells a story about being in the bath when he was called by Madiba (Mandela) wanting help to sort out a health club chain in South Africa. The investment ended up being one of his “best business decisions ... but it’s nice to be able to mix it.”

If the UK’s best-known businessman is not known for eloquence, his actions speak for him. He calls the Virgin Mobile sale, which will see the formation of a combined group offering TV, telecoms, broadband and mobile under a Virgin umbrella, his most successful “in pure financial terms”.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet and a fan of Branson, said: “I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when the NTL board decided to call the company Virgin. It’s the ultimate endorsement of a brand name, when people are willing to pay to use your name.”

Few businessmen are as inextricably linked to the brand they promote as Branson. “I used myself to put Virgin on the map,” he admits. “Virgin has become a way of life.” In public, Branson’s humour veers toward the frat-boy, telling stories about his teenage son’s need for condoms, for example. It’s hard to forget that he advertised an Australian venture by pretending to be fellated in a Jacuzzi. (Just think “Down Under” and you’ll get it). Yet, he is solicitous during the interview, which is constantly interrupted by his cellphone while he waits for a call from his medical student daughter.

Branson will become the largest single shareholder in Virgin Entertainment, or whatever it ends up being called, with just more than 10% once the deal is finalised at the end of June. Virgin will get a fee worth 0,25% of consumer revenues for the next 30 years. This would have been worth £9million last year alone.

Branson, who admits to crying like a baby when he sold Virgin Records in order to support Virgin Atlantic in his battle with British Airways, says the Virgin Mobile sale has been “more satisfying, as it isn’t just selling out”. There are risks, of course , such as the danger of associating with a company nicknamed NT-Hell. Branson contrasts these risks with those with taking over two of the UK’s most run-down rail franchises in 1997. “With NTL, I don’t think it’s as big a challenge as that.”

He appears keen to set up a sports channel and says he “wouldn’t be at all surprised if NTL is in there, bidding alongside Sky” in the auction for Premiership football matches. “I suspect we will [also] enrich a number of football, tennis and motor racing companies.”

He downplays his desire to take on BSkyB’s chairperson, Rupert Murdoch. “You’d have to be mad to have a long-lived desire to take on Murdoch.”

Taking on Sky does fit Branson’s image of going up against Goliath and upsetting the established order. Staring out of the car window and idly stroking his golden locks, he says: “I love a challenge. Sky is dominant. It is a really good company but, as I said earlier, being dominant is not necessarily good for anyone.”

Even critics scarred by his rapid reprivatisation of Virgin in 1988 have been silenced by a return of 86% since Virgin Mobile was floated on the stock market just less than two years ago. Two other businesses—the rail information group Trainline and Virgin health clubs—are lined up for flotations.

Since the late 1980s, no interview has been complete without mention of his complex financial arrangements (lots of private companies listed in different countries). “I always smile when people say they can’t see our figures,” he says, without smiling. “They are there in Companies House. If somebody wants to piece it all together, they are very welcome to work it all out.”

Branson is famously close to his family, and sitting in the car is his 88-year-old father, Ted, who has just spent three weeks sailing with his son. As we are talking about the dissatisfaction over the reprivatisation, the former barrister says: “It always seemed remarkable to me that he was criticised for, what seems to me, a decent thing to do.”

Branson tells me his dad believes that a third bid for the UK national lottery when the licence terms are published in June will end with his son “getting the same shit”. A victim of well-publicised conspiracies, Branson hints at another one involving vested interests and government inertia for not winning the lottery with his plans for a not-for-profit organisation. “I spent £20million on the last two bids. I’m not going to throw away another £10million and waste an enormous amount of work and effort if the dice are stacked against us.” Officially, Virgin is “less than likely” to try to make it third time lucky, though it is obviously still irritating.

The sheer breadth of Branson’s interests is dazzling. It seems a ludicrous understatement when he says of the lottery decision: “There are so many things going on around the world and only so many hours in the day.” Even in one short day, his schedule is exhausting and seems not to include much in the way of food. He rushes from the car to greet Finance Minister Gordon Brown, who is speaking at his home.

His staff tend to be loyal and increasingly wealthy. Will Whitehorn, often described as Branson’s right-hand man, is very articulate about the company’s environmental ambitions. About his boss, he says: “He is ruthlessly capitalistic in business but socially communist—and always has been. He is unique.”

Branson, a postmodern business figurehead, has a cameo role in the Superman (alongside a Virgin Galactic spacecraft) and Bond movies to be released this year. “It’s a fantastic promotion,” he says, finally getting enthusiastic. “They aren’t using Nasa and they wanted to bring Superman into the modern era.”

Even I, who typically feel sick on a funfair ride, enjoyed a brief moment of wanting to watch the curvature of the Earth after seeing Galactic’s promotional video. Branson, who is investing $240million in the venture, has said that he will go on the inaugural flight with his parents and children.

So what happens when Branson, who seems to have no plans to slow down, gets hit by the proverbial bus? Given his adventures to date, it’s not an inappropriate question. Branson says it would “add a bit to the promotion budget”, before adding that “each company stands on its own two feet.”

It is hard to see how the group would survive his departure. When we arrive in Oxford, a guard demands of the hire-car driver: “What company are you with?” A blonde head leans over and says, “It’s Richard.” We’re waved straight through.—Â

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