Chris Blackhurst: Why I'm sure Sir Richard Branson won't find life too taxing on his Caribbean island

Midweek View: He's so rich he can pay whatever Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs throws at him
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The Independent Online

T he decision of Sir Richard Branson to base himself on Necker, his Caribbean island, should come as no surprise to those who have followed the Virgin tycoon's career closely.

He says he's relocating for lifestyle reasons and denies the fact that a dramatically reduced tax bill could also be a factor. I want to accept Sir Richard's explanation. He's always been something of an ambassador for these shores, liking to drape himself in the Union Jack, and it would be a pity if pure cash was the lure overseas.

It's definitely the case as well that he's so rich that tax should not concern him – he can afford to pay whatever Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs throws at him.

So, in that sense, he may be right: the desire to become a tax exile on Necker (pictured) is not why he is doing it. I am, though, reminded that Sir Richard can be calculating where lowering his tax liability is concerned. Famously, or infamously, in 1971 he was fined £20,000 and forced to pay £40,000 in taxes – £1m in today's money – for a tax scam with his original record shop, Virgin Records.

It was a brush with the law and it taught him a lesson: since then he's always ensured there would be no repeat. But that's not to say he's not calculating and deliberate where tax is concerned. I vividly recall being at another newspaper and investigating the ease with which wealthy Britons were able to move their financial arrangements offshore – perfectly legally, it must be said.

One of our sources produced a ream of documentation relating to trusts held in the Channel Islands and all named after Wimbledon tennis stars. They belonged to Sir Richard and his relatives. That was a long time ago and Sir Richard's finances are likely to have been reorganised since. Nevertheless, it came as a shock. It showed a level of planning in relation to tax that you would not associate with the hippyish entrepreneur. I've always known with Sir Richard that behind the relaxed exterior lies a careful mind. He liked to conduct his business meetings at his houses in Holland Park, in London, and Oxfordshire. The setting would be informal. Then you'd notice that everything being said was being recorded in a notebook posed casually on his lap.

It had to be like this: despite what the reputation suggests you don't get to build a worldwide empire spanning different sectors, all of them ferociously competitive, by being laid-back and not in control. It's also the case that the rich become rich by guarding their pennies, and that includes how much they pay in taxes.

Want to be a tycoon? Grow a beard and wear jeans …

Sir Richard's name crops up again, this time in a new book, The Rule Breaker's Book of Business by Roger Mavity. Once an advertising whizz, then one of those behind Granada's successful pitch for Forte, before becoming chairman of Citigate, the City PR agency, and later, CEO of Conran, before finally turning to writing and photography, Mr Mavity is becoming something of an expert where business and management are concerned.

In this, his second work – it's sub-titled "win at work by doing things differently" – he eschews traditional wisdom and focuses on those who have reached the summit by not slavishly following others.

Among them is Sir Richard. He "always appears in jeans and open-necked shirt, bearded, with a haircut which looks as if he's trying to impersonate an Afghan hound on a windy day.

"The metalanguage here (if you'll excuse a media studies term) is one of rebellion. He's saying: 'I'm not a conventional businessman. I'm one of the people. I'm young at heart. I do things differently.'"

Sir Richard, says Mr Mavity, has branded himself in a way that supports his business. His "rebellious persona feeds directly to the image of Virgin Atlantic as the lively, young airline taking on the stodgy might of middle-aged British Airways."

Sir Terence Conran, Steve Jobs – they were the same, they made themselves brands that complemented their businesses. That's all very well, but how does it relate to you and me? "The answer is simple: you can learn by studying success. And in this case, what you can learn is the power of making yourself a brand, of projecting a personality which radiates what you stand for. Don't think you have to become a business leader before that's relevant. It's the other way round: if you project a vivid personality, you're more likely to end up as a business leader."

The book is full of gems like this. Mr Mavity, in case you were wondering, is shaven-headed, lean, wears the coolest glasses you'll ever see. The perfect business guru, in fact.