Richard Branson Profile, published in Open Road magazine
Published in Open Road magazine
On the 24th July 2003, billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson wrote a letter to Geoff Dixon, chief executive of Qantas, the Australian airline. "Dear Geoff," it began. "I was amused to read Qantas's completely dismissive comments about Virgin Atlantic's chances of getting permission to fly to Australia."
He went on to list what Qantas had said, about how his company was just "making it up as it went along" and then proposed a challenge. If he didn't launch this new airline within 18 months, he'd dress up in a Qantas stewardess uniform and serve passengers all the way from London to Australia. But if he did launch the airline, Dixon would have to dress up as a Virgin stewardess and do the same thing.
Dixon, sadly, did not rise to the bait and so neither man was obliged to do an 18-hour cross-dressing experience while serving drinks and peanuts. But the cute thing about this story is that you could imagine Branson really enjoying dressing up as a stewardess. And yes, he did launch the airline - Virgin Blue - just in time, 17 months after the letter.
Branson really is one of the most flamboyant, exuberant, outrageous entrepreneurs in the world. His story has already reached the status of myth, since he has achieved things in business that conventional wisdom says are impossible. His empire includes airlines, trains, soft drinks, cosmetics, bridal ware, financial services, mobile phones, megastores selling CDs and videos, travel operators and now a new plan to take paying passengers into space with Virgin Galactic. Why not? If anyone can break through the bonds of earthly gravity, it has to be Branson.
So how did he end up this way? In his autobiography Losing my virginity, Branson tells how his mother stopped the car a few miles from his house when he was four years old and pushed him into the road. He had to find his own way home. He was taught to swim by being literally pushed in at the deep end. Then he was sent away to boarding school at the age of eight.
All these things combined to give young Ricky (as his family called him) a fierce sense of independence and self-reliance. Also, since his mother was a professional dancer and actress, a definite theatrical streak. Self-publicity has always been Branson's big selling point. He has an unerring instinct for getting his name and his companies into the press. This too has its roots in his family history. His grandmother became the oldest person in the world to hit a hole in one at golf, aged 90. Branson has capped this achievement by making the fastest ever Atlantic crossing, in 1986, and breaking several ballooning records - highest, fastest, biggest etc - although his attempt to be the first person to fly right around the world was pipped by an American rival.
These feats of endurance and glamorous travel are just one part of the publicity machine. He understands very well the power of using attractive women to boost his companies' profile and will often surround himself with stunning models when launching a new venture. One of his favourite tricks is to grab a beautiful woman and turn her upside down, which can be unsettling to the woman concerned, although most of the time it is laughed off as a harmless joke, at least in the UK. He has a reputation as a bit of a shagger, but has nevertheless managed to remain married, with two children.
Another of Branson's quirks is that he refuses to care what people think of him. In an age when facial hair is generally out of fashion in business circles, he keeps his goatee. In boardrooms where all the other men are dressed in suits and ties, Branson wears a jumper and jeans. For several years, he ran his businesses from a boat, moored on a London canal. He keeps on staff who have done unprofessional things, like stealing from the company, because he believes in giving people a second chance.
This too links back to his childhood. At one boarding school, he started an affair with the headmaster's pretty 18-year-old daughter Charlotte and one night a teacher spotted him sneaking out of her room. The headmaster expelled him on the spot, but Branson wrote a suicide note, gave it to another pupil and started walking slowly towards some cliffs near the school. Teachers came running after him and the expulsion was taken back.
This was a high stakes gamble, but typical of Branson's chutzpah and style. In the early days of his mail order record company, he concocted a plan to defraud customs of the VAT he should have been paying, by sending records to mainland Europe and then re-importing them. It was illegal, he was caught, and he had to pay a fine. Since that experience, no serious illegality has come to light in the Virgin empire - Branson was given a second chance and has proved that people can change.
For many people, Branson's life appears to be one of tremendous fun. He owns a Caribbean island, a massive house in one of the most desirable areas of London (Holland Park) and genuinely seems to relish his work and life. "I have always tried to make sure I work from an environment that's pleasant and fun," he says. "If the chairman's having fun, it's easier for everyone else."
This philosophy may help to explain how Branson has been able to make inroads into markets which are famous for being tightly competitive. The airline business is one of the most notorious for this, as companies have to compete against national carriers which may be subsidised by their governments, get highly prized landing slots and so on. The difference between flying with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic is that you somehow feel that the staff have got out of bed in the morning looking forward to going to work. They are happy, relaxed and cheerful, whereas the British Airways staff can be officious, abrupt and snappy. They are looking forward to getting home.
So this attitude, that work can be fun, has maybe infected the many thousands of Virgin staff around the world and helped them make Branson the fifth richest man in the UK, with assets estimated at more than $2 billion, and earnings for the company as a whole thought to be around $8 billion per year. The fact that we don't know the exact amount is because Branson took his companies off the stock market after a brief period of listing them. It wasn't just his jumper that failed to fit in with the city suits.
Playing by the conventional rules has never suited Branson. "The conventional wisdom is that you should specialise in what you know and never stray from that," he says. "But no other brand has become a way-of-life brand the way Virgin has." He puts the spread of his interests down to "continually being interested in learning new things". Wherever he is, he always has a notebook in his pocket and notes down ideas that people tell him. "Even when we're out in a club at 3 am and someone's passing on an idea in a drunken slur. Good ideas come from people everywhere, not in the boardroom."
This endless search for new experiences has always been a Branson trait. He left Stowe private school with few qualifications at the age of 16, started up a magazine called Student and an advisory service for students, so despite his dyslexia, he was clearly on the path to entrepreneurship. He is sometimes criticised for spreading himself too thin, but he says: "Most of our businesses do succeed, but if something completely fails, then as long as we bow out gracefully and pay off all our debts, and nobody gets hurt, then I don't think people disrespect Virgin for trying. Who's been a success in life who hasn't failed?"
While he has had no further major brushes with illegality, Branson has certainly had some big scraps with competing companies. The best known of these is with British Airways, who he sued when he found they had been hacking in to his passenger lists and luring passengers away. This case went to court and he won #500,000 for himself, #110,000 for the airline and BA had to pay #3 million in legal fees. Branson divided his own compensation among his staff, an act of generosity which has passed into Virgin mythology.
You could say that the name Virgin itself sums up the kind of man Branson is. He has this undimmed optimism and youthfulness, this willingness to try new things which is normally the preserve of the young. "My general philosophy in life is you never really go wrong saying yes."
Whether it is 'yes' to starting an airline, 'yes' to flying over mountains and oceans in a balloon or 'yes' to giving thousands of people fulfilling and happy employment and making millions of people marginally happier by infecting them with his delight and own happiness, the world should be grateful that Richard Branson exists.