Branson's PR man reaps rich rewards from Tunnel link

MATHEW HORSMAN

Richard Branson's trusted PR adviser, Will Whitehorn, stands to reap a reward of more than pounds 500,000 from the decision to award the Channel Tunnel rail link to a consortium that includes Mr Branson's Virgin Group, it emerged last night.

The figure represents a conservative value for a 0.3 per cent holding in the eight-company London & Continental consortium that Mr Branson has awarded Mr Whitehorn in recognition of his work on the Tunnel link auction.

L&C, whose other members are the construction company Bechtel, the design engineers Arup and Halcrow, London Electricity, National Express, Systra and SG Warburg, plans to raise pounds 1.5bn in debt and equity to help finance the pounds 4bn project. It is believed the equity portion will be in the order of pounds 500m, of which the original investors will emerge with about 30 per cent, worth a conservative pounds 165m.

On this basis, Mr Whitehorn's 0.3 per cent holding would be worth pounds 555,000. If the project is a success, that figure could climb significantly in the future, according to investment banking sources.

Mr Whitehorn's shares will come from a 17 per cent stake held by Virgin, the privately held company owned by the Branson family trust.

It also emerged last night that other shareholders may not have been aware of Mr Branson's decision to award the shareholding to Mr Whitehorn. The award may prove controversial, as the Tunnel project includes pounds 1.5bn of government money.

Mr Whitehorn's current salary and bonus are said to total about pounds 150,000 a year, according to company insiders.

Mr Whitehorn, 36, was headhunted by Virgin in 1987, following a career in financial PR at Lombard, since bought out by Buchanan Communications. He was an account executive handling the public relations of several quoted companies, including Chrysalis, the film and music publishing company. It was the connection to Chrysalis, one of the UK's leading independent recording labels, that is believed to have attracted Mr Branson, who made his own fortune building the Virgin label.

Mr Whitehorn previously worked at TSB, and was briefly a steward on British Airways flights serving North Sea oil platforms.

He played a crucial role in Virgin Atlantic's defence against the "dirty tricks" camapign alleged to have been mounted by British Airways and its advisers. He has also been the primary spokesman for Mr Branson on his long-distance balloon flights.

Well known to journalists, Mr Whitehorn only recently took on a public profile, and is now often quoted by name as one of the few "super" PRs with the authority to speak freely on a company's business.

"Will has an extraordinary photographic memory for companies and he gets 95 per cent of it right," according to a source who knows him well. "He has an amazing ability to assimilate large amounts of information after just a single briefing."

He covers the full range of Virgin's activities, which include the airline business, radio, publishing, CD-Rom, cola and even financial investment products.

He has been particularly active on Mr Branson's behalf in the past two years, during which time Virgin made unsuccessful bids for the National Lottery and the new Channel 5 broadcasting licence.

Mr Whitehorn is also adept at feeding information to journalists and getting Mr Branson's views across.

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