Most people can put a face to the name “Richard Branson”, a flamboyant British entrepreneur with an insatiable appetite for constantly surprising the world of business, much to the delight of the media. His recognized brand name Virgin owns an eclectic mix of business interests in everything from makeup and music to air, sea and space travel.
Described variously as a daredevil and a visionary, Richard Branson breaks all the moulds for conformity.
Branson’s Early Career
Branson was born in Surrey in 1950. His father was a barrister, but it was from his mother, Eve, that he inherited his adventurous spirit and Nordic looks. A former flight attendant, she went on to fly gliders and trained RAF cadets during World War II at a time when many women did not even drive a car!
Richard Branson’s poor school record ended when he quit Stowe, a private boarding school at the age of 16 and published a youth-culture magazine entitled Student. He sold $8,000 worth of advertising in its first edition, which had a run of 50,000 copies.
By the age of 20, he had a mail order record store, his first Virgin company, which was named for his inexperience. Shortly afterwards he opened a record store in Oxford Street and a recording studio in Oxfordshire. Mike Oldfield with his Tubular Bells was the first artist to sign with the charismatic Branson, and his album sold over 5 million copies. Lucky break or calculated business decision? History shows this success was not a one-off.
Branson brought his Midas touch to other unknowns – the Sex Pistols, and later attracted big names including Phil Collins, Simple Minds, Bryan Ferry, Culture Club, Janet Jackson and The Rolling Stones, which made Virgin Records one of the biggest record companies in the world.
In 1979 he ploughed his profits into a Caribbean island called Necker and created an exclusive hideaway for royalty and celebrities who could afford the $20,000+ per night. His guest book includes the late Diana, Princess of Wales, actor Mel Gibson, TV presenter Oprah Winfrey and director Steven Spielberg. It was here in 1989 that he wed his second wife, Joan Templeman, to whom he is still married.
In 1984, Branson started Virgin Atlantic Airways with a single leased airplane. The company struggled to survive but eventually became the second largest long-haul international airline in the UK. His obsession with speed and air travel manifested itself in several different personal adventures. In 1986 he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a speedboat in record-breaking time and a year later piloted the first ever hot air balloon across the same ocean. He went on to cross the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Arctic Canada, breaking all existing records with speeds of up to 245 mph in a balloon measuring 2.6 million cubic feet. The loss of balloon altitude control caused the balloon to fly at dangerously high altitudes of over 40,000 feet. Their projected landing in Los Angeles was missed by 2,000 miles and they landed in the Canadian Rockies.
However all this nearly did not come to pass. Before embarking on his trans-Atlantic balloon voyage with Per Lindstrand, Branson inadvertently unhooked his parachute during a skydiving lesson. His life was saved by a courageous jump instructor who rescued him in mid-air. Other dangerous moments included losing two fuel tanks crossing the Pacific Ocean in a balloon and several death-defying crashes. After four aborted attempts to circumnavigate the world by hot-air balloon, Branson even teamed up with his one-time adversary Steve Fossett to try to make balloon history, but their final attempt was thwarted by a hurricane near Hawaii. The record was finally taken by a Swiss team in 1999.
In 1992 Branson reluctantly sold his Virgin Music Group for $1 billion to reinvest in his airline company. He introduced innovative extras such as seat back TV screens and full-size sleeper beds on transatlantic flights, added luxury services such as masseuses and limousines for ground transportation for first class guests. Even economy class passengers were given complimentary toiletries and headsets.
A year later Branson started Virgin Radio and in 1996 started V2, a second record company that steadily grew. Contrary to all other business investors, Branson invested his own private interests in a series of rail lines formerly run by British Rail, which proved a tough business challenge.
In 1999 he was knighted by the Queen for his contribution to business and services to entrepreneurship. At that time he had been his own boss for 30 years and owned 200 Virgin Megastores worldwide, Virgin Cola drinks company, two Caribbean islands and his airline. He employed 24,000 employees in 150 companies worldwide, turning over an estimated $5 billion a year.
Sir Richard Branson now lives in London’s Holland Park with his wife and two children, Holly and Sam. In 2011 he was listed 254th on the Forbes World Billionaire list with his $2.58 billion self-made fortune. His Virgin Group now holds more than 200 companies under its international umbrella spread over 30 countries. He currently owns a railway, a luxury game preserve, a mobile phone company and a much-vaunted space travel project, Virgin Galactic.
Despite being one of the wealthiest and most talked-about personalities in the world, Branson remains unaffected and dresses casually. He puts his entrepreneurial success down to the fact the he personally oversees each startup company then delegates the management and moves on. He operates each as a small business, despite its conglomerate structure and he prides himself on providing a pleasant work environment and informal communication, eschewing computers where possible.
Branson is rarely out of the news for his either charitable works or risqué adventures, which net him valuable free publicity. He is the trustee of several charities including Virgin Healthcare, which launched a health education campaign relating to AIDS in 1987. It also includes a lobbying campaign called Parents Against Tobacco. His Carbon War Room continues to take positive action on climate change.
For the future, Virgin Galactic is leading the way as the world’s first commercial space airline and Sir Richard is developing two vehicles, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. He plans to be aboard the inaugural flight at the end of 2011 with his mother and his children. In April 2011, he launched Virgin Oceanic to develop submarines to take “aquanauts” to the deepest reaches of the ocean. Challenges to be overcome on a trip six miles beneath the ocean include developing a craft to withstand up to 1,000 times the normal pressure on the viewing dome.
For those wanting to follow in his footsteps, Branson’s advice is simple – “Don’t try to start a business because you think you can make money. Start a business because you really want to. And do it with a smile all the time.” He certainly lives by his own advice.