The Virgin Billionaire
IT WAS a weekend, strangely enough, when sports utility vehicles dominated the headlines in two different countries. In America, O.J. Simpson made his run in a white Ford Bronco. In the U.K., Richard Branson lost control of his Range Rover after a car swerved in front of him--it flipped over and skittered across four lanes of traffic, nearly killing his family. In both countries, everyone seemed to be transfixed by the fate of a national hero.
It's easy to understand why Simpson's saga so captivated Americans. But to fully appreciate why Britons went agog over Branson's brush with death, it helps to know both the man and his ingenious tactics of self-promotion.
Richard Branson is the last of a unique British breed: the flamboyant, adventurous, hugely successful tycoon. At 44 years old, he is worth an estimated $1.7 billion and is the chairman of a multinational conglomerate--the third largest privately owned company in England. He has brought the world a plethora of virgins: Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Records, Virgin Interactive, Virgin Megastores and, just this winter, Virgin Cola.
It's not just Branson's success that fascinates the English. It's the fact that he has achieved it with such style--and such nonstop publicity. In the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of the characters, impressed by a friend's mansion, jokes that the friend must be the richest person in Britain. His friend points out the obvious. "Of course not. There's the queen," he says. "And that Branson bloke is doing terribly well."
With hair as long as it was in the Sixties and the beard of a troubadour, Branson has enhanced his image with his penchant for death-defying stunts and irrepressible childishness. In trying to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon, he crashed and nearly died. Later, he attempted to cross the Pacific--with the same result. Branson's history is full of spectacular near-misses, all of which have made the front pages.
And then there are the pranks. How many other billionaires can add the most notorious April Fools' prank ever pulled in London to their resumes? Branson loves to tell the story of how, in 1989, he used strings of blinking lights and an ominous-looking facade to disguise a hot-air balloon as a spaceship. When he piloted the contraption over the center of town, three local police forces were mobilized, the army was called out and citizens panicked. Officials tracked the UFO to the field where it had landed. While police, soldiers and the press gaped, a door opened and a midget dressed like the alien in E.T. climbed out. Branson, needless to say, was quite pleased with himself.
The U.K., in truth, is quite pleased with Branson. The weekend of his car accident, people spoke in hushed tones and paid little attention to O.J.'s arrest in the States. In a country that vilifies its politicians and deprecates its pop stars, there seemed to be a sigh of relief throughout Britain when news came that Branson and his family were not seriously hurt. The entire nation adores this overgrown boy billionaire. One British survey revealed that Branson is the third most admired man in the world, behind only the Pope and Prince Charles. Given recent developments in the royal family, Branson may have moved up a notch.
His family was still reeling from the crash--his son required a dozen stitches and his wife and daughter were badly shaken--but Branson postponed our appointment for only one day. When I asked the doorman at my hotel for a cab to a Holland Park address, Branson's home and office, he said, "Tell Mr. Branson, 'Good health and we're glad he's OK,'" even though I hadn't mentioned Branson by name. Then, upon hearing the address, the cabdriver added his salutations. "Relieved to hear the old boy pulled through," he commented.
The Holland Park mansion is indeed grand. The living room is filled with Tiffany lamps and sculptures, gilded mirrors, mantels piled with awards and Plexiglas cases containing models of some of Branson's favorite toys, including a yacht and a Concorde.
When Branson returned from an early meeting, his hair was swept back, tousled by a windy morning. A slight man, he wore a blue sports coat, a light blue, loose-fitting shirt, dark pants and plain brown shoes. He offered a warm handshake before we bolted out of the mansion and into the backseat of a limousine bound for Gatwick Airport.
Branson managed to talk and simultaneously conduct his business, fielding phone calls and occasionally referring, like a schoolboy, to notes scribbled on his hand. He also consulted a black book full of appointments, names, addresses, phone numbers and, most important, lists of ideas. The notebook was a sorry sight, pieced together and bound in plastic tape. He explained that it had barely survived the accident.
Branson tends to take his near-death experiences in stride. Asked about his latest car crash, he replied, "The third time I was pulled out of the ocean everyone said I was foolish to do such risky things. I told them, 'It's safer than driving on the motorway.' Well, maybe I was wrong." More seriously, he reflected, "It wouldn't have shaken me up so much if my family hadn't been there. That scares me--that something could have happened to them."
Branson's wife, Joan Templeman, is used to her husband's foolhardiness. Wearily, she has stood by for many of his stunts: such as the time he took off in an ultralight aircraft without the slightest idea how to land it, and the time he tumbled out of control down a ski run and was saved only because his ski pole got stuck in a rabbit hole. Mortality lurks even on his paradisiacal private isle, Necker Island in the Caribbean. Attempting to leap a six-foot-wide, 40-foot-deep chasm, he slipped but somehow managed to clutch the opposite side with his fingers, holding on until a friend was able to save him.
And those are the more ordinary adventures. Branson was pulled out of the ocean after his racing boat, the Virgin Atlantic Challenger, was swamped in 1985 (BRITISH HERO RESCUED FROM THE CRUEL SEA read the headline of one article). In 1986 he took a similar boat across the Atlantic--and broke a world record. In 1987 he and a friend were the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon, only to have a near-fatal landing when they hit Ireland. Tackling the Pacific in 1991 proved as challenging. Attempting a course from Japan to California, he was once again pulled from the ocean after a nasty crash, this time near Canada, 1800 miles off course. Branson's escapades have been cheered on by his countrymen, if not by his wife. A man on a train outside London told me, "We admire him for his stunts. Vicariously, we get the pleasure without having to subject ourselves to such nonsense."
Branson has largely given up on life-threatening exploits. Today, much of his excitement comes from the success of his prized possession--his airline. Virgin Atlantic Airways, with routes between London and Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other cities, has worked diligently to set itself apart from the competition. Branson says, "America's airlines are too big. They get worse as they get bigger, and all they want to do is get bigger. They have these sprawling routes, and they have become impersonal and, for the passengers, depressing." He operates Virgin with a different philosophy. "I am convinced that companies should put staff first, customers second and shareholders third--ultimately that's in the best interests of customers and shareholders," he says.
The airline industry is notoriously competitive. When Branson entered the business ten years ago, he was a David going after Goliath in the form of British Airways, the huge carrier that had a virtual lock on the lucrative transatlantic market to and from London. British Airways had squashed competitors before Branson, including Laker Airways. However, with Virgin's quirky but superior service--notable for massages, 16-channel TVs, great food and great scarlet uniforms--it began to win an increasing number of BA passengers as well as numerous awards. British Airways was not amused. Martyn Gregory exposed the astonishing ways the airline attempted to sink Virgin in his book Dirty Tricks: British Airways' Secret War Against Virgin Atlantic. He reports how BA systematically looted Virgin's computer records, obtaining customer lists that it then used to bribe passengers to switch. Branson attacked BA publicly for these "dirty tricks" and when BA responded by dismissing his claims, Branson sued for libel, claiming BA had called him a liar. In January 1993, after a trial that was closely chronicled in the British press, BA threw in the towel and settled with Branson. In the largest libel sum ever paid in Britain, BA forked over [pound]610,000 in damages ($1.1 million), [pound]4.5 million in court costs ($8.4 million) and--most humiliating for the BA directors and most satisfying for Branson--apologized in open court.
Now unfettered, Virgin is growing even faster. The airline flies 2 million passengers a year, which includes 24 percent of all passengers between London and New York, fewer than British Airways on that route but more than United or American. Virgin will soon fly from London to Chicago, Las Vegas, Singapore, Johannesburg and cities in Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan. Also, if the U.S. government approves the deal, Virgin and Delta will become partners of a sort: Virgin will be able to book flights to and from London and hundreds of Delta's cities in North America.
En route to Gatwick, Branson's limo stops at a building near the airport that houses a social club for his employees. There's a pub with darts, a library, a dining room, a gym and an adjoining field for soccer matches. Milling about are dozens of Virgin hostesses in their smart red uniforms. Close to 20 of these women and one man are celebrating their graduation from the Virgin flight-attendant training program, and they're about to receive their wings. Ever the hands-on boss, Branson has delegated this chore to himself.
He chats with the graduates and makes small talk with their relatives, then disappears for a moment and returns with an armload of champagne. He shakes up a bottle and points it at the carefully made-up women. "I wouldn't do it, would I?" he teases. "Not on your new uniforms--" He lets the bubbly fly, spraying everyone within a magnum's radius. What's left he pours into glasses, spilling it over the rims, licking his fingers, making certain that everyone gets plenty.
Then it's time for the ceremony. One by one, the women are called up, and Branson gives each of them a peck on the cheek. Well, not a peck exactly. More of a kiss. Then he pins on their wings. Each wing is pinned over the woman's right breast and it takes Branson a suspiciously long time to pin each one. "It's one of the perks of the job," he explains later.
Afterward, he tells the story behind the uniforms. He held an elaborate, catered fashion show in a huge hangar near Heathrow Airport. As models paraded on a runway, more than 700 flight attendants cheered or jeered. The result? "Sadly, I would have preferred it shorter," Branson said. "But it is nonetheless quite sexy."
Branson's wife, Joan, is one of the few people unimpressed by her famous husband. Following his absence--bobbing in the Atlantic, waiting to be saved from a boat wreck--while she gave birth to their son, she firmly put a stop to his adventuring. "He can charm anyone and get them to do whatever he wishes--except for Joan," says a longtime friend.
He met Joan a year after his divorce from his first wife, Kristen Tomassi, a beautiful, blonde American woman whom he had met when she was 19 and on vacation in England. The marriage in 1972 lasted three years, a victim of his obsession with building Virgin. Branson was smitten with Joan when he met her, though she was married. As tenacious with her as he is in business, within two years they were inseparable. They have been together since, though they didn't marry until 1989. ("We thought we should get married before we became grandparents," he said.) The wedding was true Branson excess: He arrived at the altar hanging from the landing struts of a helicopter.
They have a home in London and one in the country and entertain frequently. Dinner guests have included Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, heads of banks and airlines, and Boy George and Mick Jagger. When he was pursuing Janet Jackson, hoping to sign her to Virgin Records, he and Joan had her up to Oxfordshire, where they went ballooning. Branson takes off up to three months a year to vacation. During that time he dotes on his son and daughter, but the telephone and secretaries are always close at hand.
When Branson was four, his mother--who told her friends that her son would one day be prime minister--dropped him a half mile from his grandfather's farm in Devon. She said, "It's time you became a man," and left him there.
He didn't make it back to the farm alone, however. Well after dark, the small, shaken boy was rescued. Although this seems far more sadistic than educational, it had one of the desired effects: He has rarely allowed himself to fail at anything again.
His mother had been a dancer, glider pilot and stewardess--fitting, considering Branson's current occupation. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were barristers. Richard, however, seemed destined for the world of finance. In his early teens, he started his first business: a Christmas-tree-turned-bird-breeding concern. At 16 he started a magazine for students. During his tenure as editor and publisher, he persuaded writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Alice Walker and poet Robert Graves to contribute to the magazine, and he scored interviews with Vanessa Redgrave, R.D. Laing and James Baldwin. On the day Branson dropped out of school to run the magazine, his headmaster told him, "Branson, I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire."
Although Student was politically liberal--cheering on the budding student movement, criticizing apartheid, calling for liberalized drug laws and condemning the war in Vietnam--Branson was a shrewd capitalist. To help support the magazine, he sold advertising and started a mail-order record business. In the early Seventies, he opened a record store and had to decide between two names: One was Slipped Disc, and the winner was Virgin, selected for no more provocative reasons than that he was a novice in business and it sounded good.
After a brief scrape with the law--he spent a night in jail in 1971 for evading a purchase tax on records, paid a stinging penalty and "learned the hard way never to do anything like that again"--Branson worked tirelessly to build Virgin. Fifteen more shops were opened over the next two years.
When Branson was 21, he had a full-fledged label that released marginally successful records. Then, in 1974, Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, a 49-minute song on which Oldfield plays 22 instruments, became an international best-seller. To push the record, Branson dreamed up a spectacular one-time live performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall, with a group of musicians (including the Rolling Stones' Mick Taylor) playing with Oldfield. A week before the concert date Oldfield declined to participate; his composition, he insisted, could not be properly performed live. Branson wouldn't give up, and he bribed Oldfield. "All right, Mike. If you do the show you can have my Bentley," he said. Oldfield agreed.
Virgin soared after Tubular Bells. Branson pursued new bands, including the wildest, most controversial act anywhere at the time, the Sex Pistols, which had been dropped by two other labels. When Virgin released the band's infamous antiroyalist single, No Future, Branson threw a party that coincided with her majesty's Jubilee celebrations. It was held on a hired yacht and was raided by police. "It attracted lots of other bands to the company," Branson says.
Although the Sex Pistols self-destructed, Virgin Records became the largest independent label in the world. Virgin launched many careers, including that of Boy George ("The perfect star," says Branson. "He looked great, sang great, wrote great songs, wanted more than anything to be a star, and was antidrugs--until he slipped up and nearly killed himself on drugs"). After Phil Collins released his first solo album, he signed with Virgin. Peter Gabriel signed, too, as did the Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, Simple Minds, UB40 and--after the balloon ride--Janet Jackson.
Besides Virgin Records, Branson has created Virgin Interactive (which makes software, such as video-game versions of Aladdin, the Lion King, and Robocop versus Terminator), Virgin Radio, Virgin hotels and clubs and a company that makes blimps. Virgin Megastores, which sell records, video games and movies, have opened in Sydney and Los Angeles, and there are plans for many more. A relatively small business is Necker, Branson's private island, which rents out for $11,900 a day. There is also Storm Modeling Agency (he decided against naming it Virgin Models; his colleagues felt that might be pushing it too far). Storm handles Kate Moss, among others.
In addition to the Virgin businesses, Branson has started charitable organizations, including a birth control counseling center and a foundation dedicated to AIDS issues. With the start of the AIDS epidemic, he also entered the condom business, a decision less cynical than it sounds. In Britain, the International Rubber Co., manufacturers of Durex condoms, made and sold almost all the condoms that were available. Branson says Durex "had no reason to advertise," but he felt it was imperative to promote condoms--"to make them as common as white bread and as easy to get."
In 1988 he launched a condom company, setting up tens of thousands of vending machines throughout the U.K., with all profits going to charity. "We considered calling it Virgin Condoms but decided not to," he says. "We didn't want anyone to think we were doing it for our own purposes." Instead, he named it Mates. Mates is now owned by an Australian company and has, according to Branson, about a fourth of the market.
Amid these successes, there have been a few occasions when Branson's Midas touch has failed. His 1991 attempt with David Frost to take over ITV, Britain's independent TV network, was unsuccessful. So was his attempt to run the British national lottery, despite the fact that he planned to turn over the profits to a health care foundation. That was a tough loss after years of campaigning, but his research for running a national lottery will probably not be wasted: He has already made pitches to run lotteries in South Africa and China.
To raise cash along the way, Branson sold some of his smaller companies in the late Eighties and early Nineties. None paid off as handsomely as the sale of Virgin Records. In that deal he made an unqualified fortune when Thorn-EMI paid about $1 billion--nearly doubling the previous record held by David Geffen when he sold his company to MCA. Branson reportedly cried when he said goodbye to his staff; even though he remained its president, he would no longer be involved in the day-to-day management of the firm. The deal made Branson one of the world's richest men.
Back in the car, Branson responded to dozens of callers expressing concern about the accident. "We're fine," he assured them, "100 percent" or "Yeah, survived another one." After pleasantries, he got down to business. One minute he was negotiating with the Civil Aviation Authority, Britain's version of the Federal Aviation Administration. The next he was requesting a meeting with England's ambassador to China to discuss the lottery and to wrangle special permission for his jets to fly in restricted airspace over the People's Republic. This relationship could also lead to new routes into Beijing as China is transformed into a bustling capitalist center.
In London again, Branson told the driver to cross the Thames because, he said, he wanted me to get the full impact of the sight of his most recent acquisition. The driver aimed the car over Westminster Bridge and made a U-turn by the Abbey. As we again reached the river, Branson pointed to an enormous, beautifully lit building on the opposite shore. "What do you think?" he asked.
The old London County Hall is across the Thames from Parliament. As large as a palace, its magnificent halls were home to the Greater London Council until 1986, when the council was abolished. The building became obsolete. While many people dreamed about what to do with it, Branson went into partnership with the Japanese company that owned it.
Their plan is ambitious. After renovation, the building will open as a hotel--eventually with 1200 rooms, more than any other in Britain. Downstairs will comprise an entertainment complex with an aquarium, a virtual-reality amusement center, shops and restaurants. The building is across the street from Waterloo Station, which will be the main station for trains to and from the Channel Tunnel. The tunnel's high-speed trains should, as Branson says, "shuttle millions of people every day between London and Paris and the rest of Europe." Branson, in fact, is bidding to win the concession to run the trains. He has pledged to run them as he does his airline, with similar amenities and fun.
It is a typically bold Branson scheme: He will fly passengers into Heathrow from America and the rest of the world. Instead of changing planes after a grueling transatlantic flight, those continuing on to other cities in Europe will take a leisurely limousine ride into London for a night or more at his hotel. Ready to leave London, they would stroll along a walkway he plans to build between the hotel and the train station, board his high-speed rail and ride his trains to France, connecting to Italy, Germany or other places in Europe, while gambling, dining, watching feature films or getting massages. Virgin planes, Virgin trains, Virgin hotels. The thinking behind it is simple: Why give away all that money if you can figure out a scheme to keep it?
Even though the hotel would not be opening for more than a year, Branson drafted it into service for his airline's anniversary bash. The interior was dusted off, red carpets were rolled out, tents were put up, cupboards were filled with cases of champagne and wine and a banner, several stories high, was draped over the roof. It read: TEN YEARS ON TOP.
Branson knows how to throw a party. "If the boss is in a stuffy suit and tie sipping sherry in the corner with his cronies, the rest of the people will have as dreary a time," he said. "If nothing else, I want my people to have a good time. It's good business practice; if they are having a good time they'll do a better job for you."
In one room at County Hall, the interior of a Virgin 747 was re-created; another room had been transformed into a casino. Elsewhere, attractive masseuses wearing Virgin uniforms offered therapeutic rubs.
On the terrace, where a buffet supper was being served, there was a cake the size of Iowa, with white frosting and an anniversary greeting in Virgin red, a gift from Delta Airlines.
The sky that evening was an unbelievable orange. Westminster and the famous clock tower were softly lit, and barges with glowing lanterns glided on the river. A brilliant white moon peeked over the city as the sun disappeared.
About nine P.M., white-gloved hostesses asked everyone to move to the front of the hotel and down the stairs to the bank of the Thames. The party spilled out onto the dimly lit riverbank.
Branson sat grinning and cross-legged with boyish bad posture atop a concrete tower that overlooked the crowd, the river and the entire city. As the partiers emptied their glasses again and the night sky turned apricot, one voice cut through the chatter. "There," a young man said, pointing skyward.
Flying through the sky came Branson's newest toy, a sleek and powerful Airbus A340 with the company logo, the red Virgin girl, painted on its tail, winging over the Thames. Somehow Branson had been successful in getting permission for the plane to buzz the city. Out of place in the middle of London, the jet was spectacular as it flew over the river, over Buckingham Palace, over Westminster Abbey and, meaningfully, over British Airways headquarters. As it approached the party, it tipped its wings toward the small man whose smile was now uncontainable.
The next day, a bobby standing guard at Parliament would say, "The bloody fool Branson almost sheared the top off Big Ben." But that evening the partiers let out a collective cheer. "Life is a bit unreal," Branson said, "and I still wake up and think it could be a dream." He sipped champagne. "If it is," he continued, "it's a very good dream, see. And I have every intention of enjoying it. Life is fleeting, and we could go at any time. I mean, your car is on the motorway. Someone pulls out in front of you. Boom. That's it. So enjoy it now. And I am."