Interview: Will our hero win the lottery?: Richard Branson has turned from a ballooning figure of fun into a national role model, doing good works . . . and bashing British Airways, of course

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Not Richard Branson, please. Give us a break. He's always in the papers, can't you find someone else to interview? Not quite true. His phizog does appear awfully frequently, launching this, helping that, popping up unexpectedly in TV sitcoms. This is because he sees it as his duty to fly the flag, in his case Virgin Atlantic Airways' dinky little logo, taking any opportunity to push his product, if only to annoy British Airways.

As for a proper interview, sitting down for an hour and a half uninterrupted, giving of his wisdom, you might be surprised to hear that he has not done that for three years. In fact, I have waited a year to be fitted in.

Yes, but he is the one with the goofy look and the silly beard? Ballooned one- handed backwards across somewhere or other. Always wears a pully, lives on a canal boat, made a mint out of Tubular Bells, then began that airline. Where is the interest in him now?

Ah, but something unusual has happened to him in the last few years. Not the millions he has made - half a billion is the estimate of his own personal fortune - or the companies he has created, interesting though they are, but the fact that he has grown out of his groan-making years. At 43, he is no longer mocked. Now government ministers return his calls at once. Two opinion polls last year made him the country's most popular role model - approved of by both teenagers and parents. He has yet to be rubbished or hounded by the tabloids. So let's to Holland Park, west London, the lovely home of one of our national heroes.

The canal boat is no more, but he still operates from home, organising his life round his family. He has no corporate HQ, which you might expect from someone employing 6,000 staff in 15 countries. The normal multinational chairman makes it his first priority, building a monument to himself. But Branson's empire is scattered in 40 or so separate houses, mostly round west London. I also like the fact that he has created all these companies from scratch, not gobbled them up in takeover bids like almost every other modern mogul. I even like his awful clothes - a pleasant change from the boring grey suit.

So tell me, Richard, if you are so wonderful and have so many admirers, why is it not Sir Richard, or Lord Virgin, or even the Duke of Branson? Think of the thugs and twisters who have been honoured.

He looked suitably uneasy, which he finds easy to do. He is rather shy and diffident, a mumbler, humming and erring, not at ease with words. He can be arrogant on some business occasions, so colleagues say, but as a person he is rarely flash or brash.

I glanced around his ground-floor lounge while he arranged his answer. He has two Victorian villas next door to each other, his personal staff working in carpeted, comfy rooms on antique desks. Lots of model aeroplanes on display, one of them of Concorde with the Virgin logo painted on the side and tail. Good joke, Richard.

Some nice photographs of his incredibly blond-haired children, Holly, 12, and Sam, 8, and his Glaswegian wife, Joan. They have been together 15 years, but she has never once been interviewed. She leaves all publicity to him, but she does choose his clothes. Not a pully today. A smart blue striped shirt. No tie, of course, or jacket. There are limits.

At last, an answer is emerging . . . 'I've never actually been offered an honour . . .'

Yes, but if you were, would you accept? 'I don't know.'

Liar, I said. He smiled. I thought at one time you were all kissy-kissy with Margaret Thatcher? He groaned. That was one of the rare occasions when he was out-manoeuvred. He got involved with something called UK 2000, to knock Britain into shape, helping the unemployed. 'I only met her twice, both at formal gatherings. It was Downing Street that gave the impression I was actively involved with her.' But she appeared to be your new best friend? 'That's not the impression she gave me. She was very unhelpful in the early days of the lottery project . . .'

Well done. I wondered when we would get round to it. On 14 February, along with Lord Young, he will be formally handing to the Government an application to run Britain's first national lottery. Nine other groups are tendering - all of them commercial, hoping for some profits for themselves. (One has newspaper interests, which he suspects is why his bid has had limited publicity so far.) Only his UK Lottery Foundation will hand over all profits directly to charity.

'The idea came to me six years ago when I was in Ireland, staying with friends. I kept coming across sports halls, arts centres, youth clubs, all funded by their national lottery. I looked at other countries and found that almost all of them had a national lottery, all putting their proceeds into good causes. I thought, why can't we do that in Britain? I came back and met Douglas Hurd, and he was helpful, and so were the civil servants. My idea was that we should create a foundation like the Ford Foundation, as we have nothing at all of that size, and it would distribute the money directly, not letting the Government do it. Mrs Thatcher was not very helpful . . .'

She wanted the Government to handle the money? 'No, I think it was the influence of the football pools lobby. They will obviously suffer drastically when the lottery starts.' Which it will, later this year, but we will not know till 1 May which group has won the licence. On the face of it, being the only goodies, doing it for no profit, won't that swing it?

'We shall see. I've talked to 200 charities, and told them our plans, and they are naturally all for us. We've also done surveys which show that two out of three people would prefer to buy lottery tickets with no commercial group involved. I estimate that in seven years we should be able to distribute pounds 2bn to charities, to the arts and sports. No other country lets a commercial firm run its national lottery. So if we don't get it, I hope there will be a public outcry.'

Why are you taking no money from the scheme? Long pause, as if waiting to be got at.

'Our chance of winning is better if we take no profits, which will mean more money to charity.' That sounds a bit devious. Aren't you really doing it for self- publicity, for vanity, self-glory, plus extra house points? 'Well I do hope that it will make the eye of the needle a little bit larger when I come to the end of my days . . .

'The trouble is if you say you're doing something for charity, people in Britain are immediately cynical or suspicious. If I hold a press conference, launching a company, saying I plan to make millions, then I'd get totally uncritical coverage. It's only when I do something not for myself that I get attacked. That's what happened when I started Mates condoms, a non-profit making venture, as my bit against Aids. It challenged the monopoly of Durex and we went on to get 28 per cent of the market . . .'

Yes, but Mates has since been sold, though there is still a royalty which helps Aids. Would that happen with the lottery - selling out when it has been established? 'If that happened, the foundation would get a large capital sum; but we don't plan to, and I don't think we would be allowed to. The lottery licence will be for only seven years.

'Setting up companies is my skill, it's what I do best: finding good people, then letting them work. I like the challenge of starting new things.'

His lottery, if he gets it, will certainly provide fun. He envisages two lottery programmes a week on television, one a mid-week game show, and one on Saturday evening when the winners are announced, which he says should get viewing figures of 35 million. That is about twice the audience of any existing programme. Discussions are under way with the BBC and ITV about the television rights.

He is more concerned these days with fun, or doing good, though he does not think that is the reason why he now appears to be the acceptable face of capitalism. His madder exploits, creating transatlantic ballooning and boating records, are now in the past as he is trying to be a responsible father and husband. 'I think the younger generation identified with those adventures, as there are not too many Boys' Own heroes out there today, but the older generation probably thought I was irresponsible.'

The change, so he thinks, is probably to do with age and also his deadly enemy, BA. Taking it on, and its dirty tricks, David against Goliath, and winning, greatly increased his popularity. 'The public like you to succeed in adversity.' In talking about his Atlantic journeys, he happened to let slip that his wife had her own theory about them. Not to be a Boys' Own hero, or get in the records books, but 'to avoid the challenge of the opposite sex'.

A joke - or does she think it was sexual sublimation? I have heard similar theories about some of our great explorers, that they were running away from their suppressed homosexuality, but this is a new one. Does it mean you were scared of all the groupie girls that any young, even semi-virile, millionaire attracts? He smiled, trying to look bashful. Do I presume you are now taking advantage of them? 'Oh fuck you,' he said.

Well, you brought the subject up. 'If I were ever tempted, I've a funny feeling the tabloids would know next day, or BA's dirty tricks department. If you agree to split the commission with me, I'll let you know first . . .'

On his 40th birthday, he did think seriously of giving it all up. He had grown bored with the record part of his business - which in 1992 he went on to sell to EMI for pounds 1bn - and began to think he might retire completely. Unlike most moguls, he can relax, take holidays, play with his family. 'For three or four days I thought seriously about going to university. I did leave school early. I hated being sent away to school and all the time it took up, so I left at 16 to begin Student magazine. My ambition was always to be an editor, not an entrepreneur. That all happened by chance.

'Since then, I've been learning all the time. Every new thing I've got into I've learnt something. In the last year I've learnt how charities work. I now know how to run an airline. I realised I should use what I've learnt. I could drop out and enjoy myself, but at the age of 80, I'd hate to look back and think I never used what I learnt, that I didn't make the best of my position and the tremendous teams I've built up.

'I have a choice, a rare choice, to do some worthwhile things, which is what I hope to do. But at the same time, I want to have fun. The ultimate future is pretty gloomy for us all, so it's vital to have fun along the way. And, of course, give BA a run for their money . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments