He may have taken on the big boys, put some charm back into business and made flying more fun but, Simon Calder asks...
Do we need him? Not as much, the evidence suggests, as he needs us. He demands our constant indulgence in his increasingly childish publicity stunts. He craves our approval for his persona as the bearded, be-cardiganed bloke who takes on big, bullying business. And he depends on our cash to finance the airline that represents his ego.

That's not to say that I resent Britain's favourite entrepreneur. On the contrary: he passes the "would you enjoy an evening in the pub with this man?" test handsomely, not least because of his celebrated non-aversion to alcohol. More tangibly, every British rock fan, condom user and airline passenger owes him respect (however grudging) for what he has done in raising standards and cutting prices. And I admire the way that, for a quarter of a century, he has aimed straight at the disposable income of people like me. I don't have shares in him - the all-too-temporary public flotation of Virgin was a flop - but I feel as if I do.

Richard Branson began his first business venture while between detentions at Shrewsbury School. Student magazine was an ambitious attempt to harness the ideals of the Sixties, but since it was founded on the sort of financial base you would expect from a sixth-former, it duly foundered.

Branson was undeterred. I grew out of short trousers and into my teens at precisely the moment Virgin began. I wasn't entirely sure what virginity was, but I knew Virgin Records hit every adolescent's spot with the promise of cheap music.

The discount mail-order business was as genuinely revolutionary as the Hendrix albums he sold. Pre-1970, RPM meant more than revolutions per minute. Resale Price Maintenance required each single to cost precisely 6s 8d (33p) and each album 37s 6d (pounds 1.87). Branson applied the elementary economic theory of price elasticity to vinyl, and came up with the thirty- bob (pounds 1.50) LP. Operating out of an attic in Notting Hill, he sold records by the thousand to kids like me, battling to come to terms simultaneously with puberty and Deep Purple in Rock.

A run-in with officialdom at Dover docks revealed that a portion of the price-cutting depended upon an imaginative treatment of purchase tax legislation. But by then Virgin Records was opening store after store in trendier parts of the UK. The Brighton branch was equipped with cushions and headphones so that you could laze around, smoke dope and fail to realise just how awful Deep Purple could be.

Richard Branson was the first to realise just how profitable Mike Oldfield could be. In retrospect, Oldfield was the first one-album hit wonder. But by catching the concept music wave of the early Seventies, his Tubular Bells surfed to the front of many a music collection. The Virgin label was made. By the time the follow-up Hergest Ridge was released, most of us had realised that the quasi-electronic symphony of special effects had all the staying power of Little Jimmy Osmond. We sat on our hands and waited for punk to arrive. But with everyone from the Human League to Phil Collins on his books, Branson knew how to pick a winner.

When he backed a loser, though, he backed it big. One of the first victims of Thatcherism was the equal-pay rule at Time Out magazine. Staff who had cherished the idealistic egalitarianism of the listings magazine walked out, and formed a collective which led to the creation of the rival City Limits. Branson, sniffing a gap in the market, founded Event magazine. But the only way it could distinguish itself from its two competitors was to become increasingly eccentric in its definition of truth. A massive libel action saw it off within six months.

In other respects, Richard Branson gauged Thatcherism just right. When the first tranche of the national silver came up for sale in the shape of British Telecom shares, he played the neat trick of lending each of his staff enough cash to buy a batch and take the gains from "stagging" the issue. If you are going to give your employees a bonus, you might as well get the Government to pay for the added loyalty.

The loyalty shown by his staff has, so far, made him a personal fortune of around pounds 400m, most of it raised by the sale of Virgin Records. He sold his music interests to pay for the expansion of his airline - the one business that he clearly and dearly loves.

When grown men find themselves in charge of an airline, they usually leave their financial acumen in the departure lounge. In three years in the early 1990s, for example, the world's airlines collectively lost all the profits that had been made in aviation since commercial flying began. Yet Virgin Atlantic came through the recession without losing altitude.

With his airline, as with everything else, Branson saw a gap and went for it. By 1984, Sir Freddie Laker had over-expanded into collapse. British Caledonian was performing feebly as a competitor to the then state-owned British Airways. So a brash new carrier was bound to have a following wind.

Virgin Atlantic began with an elderly 747, flying between Gatwick and Newark (with a curious and short-lived feeder operation from Maastricht). The first flight was full, and ran out of champagne somewhere over Newfoundland. It set a pattern that has endured ever since (though with better-stocked drinks trolleys). Contrary to popular impression, Virgin flights have never been especially cheap. But they have always been fun.

Only a persuasive PR person managed to stop Richard Branson calling his economy class Riff Raff. His choice of Upper Class for the premium cabin has stuck, and to his great credit and the eternal gratitude of business travellers, has become the industry standard. Free limousine transfers and legroom about the size of Belgium became the norm, and Virgin, with its low cost base and high profile, could offer a first-class product at business-class prices.

The airline cherry-picked profitable routes - Boston, Miami, JFK - and elbowed its way into Heathrow. British Airways reacted with its infamous "dirty tricks" campaign, hacking into the Virgin reservations computer and diverting prospective passengers with tall stories and free upgrades. The subsequent lawsuit still rumbles on. It was within an ace of settlement (several million pounds to Branson's advantage) until the Virgin proprietor refused to accept the gagging clause.

He evidently knows himself all too well: silence and Richard Branson are mutually exclusive. When Margaret Thatcher needed a tame businessman to help clean up Britain, she recruited the Virgin boss to share in the mutual humiliation of the litter-collection photo-opportunity. His not always high-achieving ballooning record would be commercially fatal to any other airline boss. But whether he is moping about losing the National Lottery franchise or adopting his "How-can-they-possibly-expect-me-to- run-a-radio-station-on-AM?" poor boy pose to get an FM frequency for Virgin Radio, his grin sells newspapers.

Which is how a bearded, middle-aged multi-millionaire made the front page of the Sun last week in a story about his relationship with women. Owen Oyston, the disgraced tycoon convicted of rape, lost out in publicity terms to a picture of Branson being rubbed down by his on-board masseuses. The Virgin boss enjoys exploiting the ambivalence of the role of stewardesses as much as he relishes the free publicity it generates.

His genius for self-publicity was recognised by Eurostar. Although only a minority partner in London & Continental Railways, which is building the high-speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel, he was handed the marketing mandate for Eurostar trains to the Continent. So a team fresh from the Virgin office in Crawley moved up the road to Waterloo, invented the pounds 49 fare to Brussels and ran a press trip to the Belgian capital that has already achieved near-legendary status in the liggers' litany; not every mini-bar in Brussels was raided for an impromptu Branson hotel room party, but to the cleaners the next morning it probably looked as if it had been.

The media and the public would tire quickly of such behaviour were it not for the fact that Branson's businesses offer plain good value and customer service. Given the straight option of a flight to New York on the carrier of my choice, I would pick Virgin every time. I like the on- board entertainment (even though massage is not an option in Economy), and neat touches like the ice-cream halfway through the movie. I also have a sneaking regard for someone who treats the people at the back of the plane as something more than riff-raff. I respect the effort that Branson put into launching Mates condoms and the Virgin Healthcare Foundation at the start of the Aids crisis. And I still have that scratched copy of After the Goldrush (Deep Purple in Rock, thankfully, having long since vanished) that a week's paper round enabled me to buy, courtesy of Richard Branson.

I couldn't begin to calculate how much of my money you have by now Richard, but you're welcome to it. You probably need it more than me.

What do you think?

Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come-on-down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict on Richard Branson, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171-293 2182 no later than Friday morning.

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