Richard Branson: 'The moon's the limit'

Sir Richard Branson may have lost out on Premiership football rights, but his dream of a Virgin sports channel lives on. And there's so much more he still wants to achieve. He talks comics, clean fuel, and intergalactic travel with Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson is now so rich now that he doesn't even need to bother reading lists of the very rich. If he had read the most recent effort he would have found that a business empire launched on the back of a student magazine nearly 40 years ago was estimated to be worth a total of £3,065m.

And because of his latest big media deal, the sale of Virgin Mobile to cable group NTL for £972m, Branson is judged to be the ninth richest person in Britain - up from 12th last year.

He may not quite be in the same league as Roman Abramovich, but after years of aspiring - largely unsuccessfully - to be a major media player, he is now in a position as the largest shareholder in a united British cable company formed from the merger of NTL and Telewest to launch himself again into television production and try to challenge Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. That ambition remains despite last week's setback when the cable company was outbid by BSkyB and the Irish pay-TV group Setanta for rights to the Premiership.

"I don't particularly like rich lists," he explains in an interview in his Holland Park mansion. "I think one's personal wealth is there to create new companies, to create new jobs, to tackle some social issues. I hope I will never know what I am worth because I don't think I will ever have much money in my personal bank account because any money I make gets very quickly ploughed into new ventures.".

He is particularly pleased about the performance of Virgin Mobile, a company created as recently as 1999. Branson's ability to offer the use of the Virgin brand to the new united cable company gave him more than 10 per cent of the enlarged company and considerable leverage over the shape of the merger.

Last year Telewest was seriously considering the sale of Flextech, its television channels business, to the highest bidder as a "non-core" asset. Branson made it clear that if Flextech - which operates channels such as Bravo, LivingTV, Trouble and Challenge - was sold, any deal with Virgin would be off. The television content was a big part of the attraction. Instead, Flextech is still part of the group, which will in future use the Virgin name for its consumer offerings. Branson may decide to launch new Virgin-branded television channels, which could be carried on cable, digital broadband and mobile phones.

In a way the latest development will bring Branson full circle. He was an original investor in satellite group British Satellite Broadcasting nearly two decades ago. "I tried to persuade our partners to merge with Sky and couldn't persuade them and we were fast running out of money," he says. He sold his shares to Australian businessman Alan Bond for £31m - making a profit of £1m. "We just got rid of them in time. We didn't have deep enough pockets."

Then in 1991 Virgin failed to win the main London ITV licence, which went to Carlton. "Obviously I thought it was the wrong decision," says Branson, who also subsequently failed to land the Channel 5 licencee. "It wasn't exactly the best network created," .

When the NTL deal is completed by the beginning of July, the company will be able to offer customers "four-play" - or as wags have it, "foreplay" - television, telephone, mobile and broadband all on a single account. "The four-play proposition is a relatively good one but I suspect knowing Virgin we will make it five-play or six-play in time," Branson promises.

Virgin has a credit card company with more than 1 million customers and that could be offered to cable subscribers - as could special offers for the Virgin Atlantic airline. "It slightly depends on how much they want us to bring," says Branson, who has the right to join the board of the main company and claims the right to appoint its marketing chief.

Losing the football rights bid was a setback for the company, but Branson's dream of one day launching Virgin Sports channel is unlikely to go away. "It would be brilliant if we could pull it off," he says. Telewest/NTL at least forced bidding into a tense second round last week, but it wasn't to be. Still, Branson believes that the new company will be able to bring extra competition to the UK television market. "It's going to be a job to compete with Sky but I think they will give them a run for their money."

Branson looks tanned and relaxed after a sailing trip in the Caribbean with his 89-year-old father Ted, and his smile - and indeed his entrepreneurial vigour - appear undimmed as he approaches his 56th birthday.

Ted is in the kitchen having a cup of tea - surrounded by signed copies of his son's autobiography. The books are going with Branson to a question-and-answer session at the London Business School. Later the same day there is another question-and-answer session in Oxford with the chief executives of the UK's 100 fastest-growing private companies. At that event Branson shared the bill with the Chancellor Gordon Brown.

One thing Branson doesn't really do is speeches, but he is happy to answer questions. "I am not the most articulate speaker yet, interestingly, now I make about £4m a year for Virgin charitable foundations making speeches, which greatly amuses me - basically questions and answers."

Throughout his long career Branson's business activities have been marked by a succession of adventures or stunts - everything from speedboats across the Atlantic to near-fatal long-distance ballooning record attempts. Usually the sense of adventure has been more than matched by an equal and cool-headed desire to market the Virgin brand without having to pay.

What some see as the greatest-ever Virgin stunt, but which Branson sees as a serious business enterprise, is due to blast off in 30 months' time, taking paying passengers to the edge of space. Branson first registered the name Virgin Galactic Airways in 1991 and, just to be sure, Inter-Galactic has now also been registered. Five re-useable rockets are being manufactured and the Virgin founder is clearly excited at the prospect of taking both himself and the Virgin name into space.

Ted Branson is being lined up for the first passenger flight, although Ted himself is markedly noncommittal when asked for confirmation. "He's going," his son insists. "I'm going and my two kids will be coming. We will make it a family affair." Though Branson does not say whether his wife Joan plans to join the party.

One person who will definitely be up there is advertising guru Trevor Beattie, a founder of Beattie McGuinness Bungay and the creative who helped to get New Labour elected. He has already paid his full fare of $200,000 and could be the first ad man in space.

"Being an ad man has nothing to do with it," Beattie says. "Being a child of the Apollo moon shots has everything to do with it. I sat there and watched it and when I was a kid being an astronaut was what you wanted to be. These days people want to be Alan Sugar." Beattie was in Los Angeles last week attending a Galactic briefing forum.

Branson hopes that over time the price will come down and that hundreds of thousands of travellers will be able to enjoy the effect of going from 0-3,500mph in 10 seconds. "It will be a great flagship company for Virgin."

Branson insists that he has only fully realised the power, and value, of the Virgin brand in recent years and claims that it wasn't something that was pre-planned. "In the last few years we have realised that we have a global brand in Virgin that is well respected and strong and we have found that taking Virgin globally has been relatively easy. We've been able to find partners in all sorts of countries all over the world because of the strength of the brand." Branson openly admits that he believes the NTL deal has more to do with gaining access to the Virgin brand than with the mobile company.

The cable group has agreed to pay 0.25 per cent of its revenues a year for 30 years for use of the Virgin name - a deal that this year would have netted Virgin around £9m.

If Branson now understands the importance of protecting his brand, in the 1990s it was sprayed around rather indiscriminately. There was Virgin Vodka, Virgin Vie, Virgin Brides, Virgin Wine, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Cars, Virgin Visions and Virgins Cosmetics. Branson has a particular soft spot for Virgin Brides - mainly because he liked the name. He was even prepared to shave off his beard and don a wedding dress to launch the company.

"The photo of the Virgin Brides launch didn't do any harm to the Virgin brand on a global basis. We still have a bridal shop in Manchester but it wasn't one of the biggest successes."

Will Whitehorn, who has been a director of Virgin companies for nearly 20 years, explains that Branson is an entrepreneur who wanted to experiment with the brand and see what worked and what didn't. Now the company doesn't go ahead with a new project unless it can see potential revenues of £100m within three years.

The company Whitehorn joined in 1986 had a total value of £250m and employed 4,000 people around the world. This year pre-tax profits came to £250m and 45,000 people are employed in Virgin companies. Along the way there was a process of experiment, of learning, and clearly not everything worked. Now there is a concentration on the big transport enterprises such as airlines, rail and now communications.

Tom Bower, who wrote a blunt biography of Branson, sees it rather differently: "He is an extraordinary chancer who has got away with an enormous amount and yet shows amazing skills of rejuvenation and reinvention. He could have fallen long ago but he is a man of extraordinary vitality and able to gloss over the sins of the past."

Sometimes too he finds it difficult to let things go. Twice his idea of a People's Lottery has been rejected in favour of the current lottery operator, Camelot. He is clearly still sniffing around to see whether to apply a third time. In recent weeks his lottery specialist, Simon Burridge, has had exploratory discussions with the Lottery Commission.

"The way it is set up at the moment it would be very, very difficult to topple Camelot," says Branson. "It costs £10m per bid so really the money could be better spent."

He sounds diffident and unfailingly polite, and after offering tea he jumps up to get it himself. The Earl Grey tea arrives in floral cups without saucers. Everything is being packed up in Holland Park because now that their grown-up children have left home Branson and his wife are moving to somewhere smaller.

But with Branson some things don't changed. Ideas are still jotted down in notebooks and on scraps of paper - ideas that can lead to the creation of new companies. A recent idea is a move into comics - in India.

"We have quite a lot of involvement with India and we thought we'd give it a shot through comics, and possibly animated feature films could come from it, but we are just putting our toe in the water and see what happens." Mostly these days he is concentrating on areas where he believes he can make a difference such as planes and trains, and a more socially aware element is coming to the fore.

A school for African entrepreneurs has been set up in South Africa, and other African initiatives include a clinic capable of treating 100,000 patients, and a centre to co-ordinate action against diseases such as Aids, malaria and TB.

But most of all Branson has discovered global warming . Two years ago, when he suggested setting up his own oil refinery when aviation fuel costs started rising, media mogul Ted Turner got in touch to suggest that he should consider alternative fuels.

Sir Richard has been investigating and is now involved in the creation of the first cellulose ethanol plant - making fuel which is 100 per cent environmentally friendly from waste in the fields. His interest in the subject was reinforced last month when former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore sat on his Holland Park sofa and delivered a one-to-one two-hour lecture on the subject.

Gore told Branson that his was a voice that people listen to around the world and enlisted him "to get out there and talk about global warming and how worrying it is". Branson says: "Through my business contacts, hopefully I can play a small part in making a difference, and sometimes making decent money by making a difference."

It is clear that Branson is never going to retire, and that indeed he has trouble with the concept. "I never quite understand the word retirement. I enjoy life far too much and I've never really thought of myself as working either, so I'm just going to continue learning and challenging myself and hopefully challenging people around me."