The Virgin who just wants to be loved

Richard Branson is at the centre of a new Lottery storm. Jonathan Glancey explains why we sympathise with him
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The Independent Online
When Richard Branson claims he was offered a bribe to drop his bid to run the National Lottery two years ago by Guy Snowden, a director of GTECH, an American company with a 22 per cent stake in Camelot - a claim that has been denied - it is hard not to side with the bearded and be-jumpered plutocrat.

Why? Because whereas Camelot creams pounds 1m a day running the Lottery, money that slips smoothly into well-lined pockets, Branson would have run it entirely as a charity, contributing a further pounds 300m a year to worthy causes nationwide. That's our Richard: the businessman as folk hero, a capitalist Robin Hood fronting a pounds 2bn empire, yet fighting those who play the role of the greedy and promiscuous rich to ensure a fair deal and good value for all.

There are other tempting reasons to sympathise with Branson. He has been victim of dirty tricks departments before. In fact, he is still fighting British Airways through the American courts, more than two years after he successfully sued the "world's favourite airline" for gaining transatlantic business unfairly at the expense of his own Virgin Atlantic.

He is liked, too, for making it big in business without having become pompous or having adopted the seemingly mandatory double-breasted suit. He is admired because, unlike so many get-rich-quick British businessmen, he has made his money not by raiding, stripping or taking over existing companies, but by creating his own from scratch.

Starting with the publication of Student magazine in 1968, Branson has moved on, up and through record shops, recording studios (remember Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells? Branson certainly does; that album made him his first million), music publishing, nightclubs ("The Venue"), computer games, an airline, book publishing, post-production video facilities, condoms, fizzy drinks, vodka, a radio station (Virgin 1215 AM), a design company (with Rodney Fitch), a television station in Mexico ... and there's more.

Even when - as in soft drinks and airlines - Branson invests in mainstream and established businesses, he does so with energy and panache, offering quality and polished service at prices that undercut those of rivals.

With a personal fortune of pounds 750m or so, he was, at the last count, Britain's ninth richest businessman, yet manages to maintain his image as a slightly nerdish Jack-the-lad, happy to serve you coffee if he happens to be flying tourist class (which he will) on the same Virgin flight.

Of course, the very size of the Virgin empire means he is increasingly obliged to delegate. Yet it is Branson - his beard, toothsome grin, boyish charm and sense of adventure - we see in all Virgin's doings. Branson is to Virgin what Tony the Tiger is to Frosties or Super Mario is to Nintendo.

Without Branson and his frequent appearances in every conceivable publication from Hello! to Pilot, Virgin would not be taking 7.9 per cent (pounds 35m) of the supermarket cola market, nor would Virgin Megastores have captured 25 per cent (pounds 400m) of the UK home entertainment market.

Virgin Cinemas has 23 per cent (pounds 110m) of the UK cinema business now that Branson has acquired the MGM chain for pounds 195m. Virgin Atlantic - his proudest boast - carries more than one in five air passengers (1.7m of them) to and fro between Britain and the United States.

Branson's remarkable success - he is still only 45 - reflects the growing power of the business communicator. Like Bill Gates, Terence Conran or Anita Roddick he sells his business by being able to communicate not just with the business world but with the media and the public too. The key to all his businesses is the Virgin image and his own public charisma.

Branson's overt affability is not all front. He is charming and generous to his staff and they clearly like him. That other business leaders admire him is no secret. At the height of the British Airways debacle, the country's top 500 directors voted him the "most outstanding business communicator" in the UK. Branson received twice as many votes as the runner-up, Sir John Harvey Jones, who is no slouch himself. A month later, in November 1993, he was voted the director most small British companies would like to have on their board.

The man is rarely out of the news. Here he is (saucy chap) appearing with Pamela Anderson and Yasmine Bleethe in the 100th episode of Baywatch (conveniently coinciding with the launch of Virgin Energy, a soft drink promoted by ... Pamela Anderson). Here he is buying his wife Joan a pounds 2m house in Holland Park as a wedding present; here he is, a few years down the line, selling the same house for a cool pounds 4m.

When Branson turned the family Range-Rover upside down on the A40 last June (on the way back from a late-night promotional tennis bash at Planet Hollywood), a policeman called to the scene said, "we are certain Mr Branson was not to blame in any way." Sergeant Williams said it all: as if anyone would blame the bearded boy prankster. There are no flies on Richard Branson; even his accidents are opportunities.

Playing Robin Hood to Lord King's Sherriff of Nottingham has, however, been Branson's business masterstroke. Since selling Virgin's record business to Thorn EMI for half-a-billion or so in 1992, Branson has pumped at least pounds 115m of his own money into his airline. He is determined to succeed and in plans just unveiled he has British Airways firmly in his sights.

Branson learnt to steal the limelight when he started Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984. Where Sir Freddie Laker had failed with his transatlantic Skytrain (shafted, Sir Freddie believed, and most observers agreed, by competition from, among others, British Airways), Branson was going to win.

"You've got to fight the bastards all the way," Sir Freddie advised Branson. "And, you've got to sue them for all they've got if they do you down". Most of all, said Sir Freddie, "you've got to get the public on your side." Branson went "public" in 1984, charming the public into the seats of his second-hand Jumbos.

Self-deprecating charm, however, has not always won the day for Branson. In June 1993 he made a bid to take over Radio 4. Why should a man who made his first million in pop suddenly care about Purcell? "Maybe I am coming into the category of boring old fart," said Branson, then 43, to the Commons Heritage Committee. Joe Ashton, Labour MP and committee member, thought it was more because Branson wanted to push his own records. Others concurred. Branson invested in his own radio station, Virgin 1215, instead. The studio is at the heart of his Oxford Street megastore, so, up to a point, Ashton was right: radio broadcasting and record sales went hand in Virgin hand.

Yet, no one seems to mind Branson's blatant self-publicity. Journalists like him, the public likes him and his simple business philosophy "you don't have to be a bastard to succeed; in fact all bastards fail" cannot fail to win over everyone who has ever fought treacherous rivals (and colleagues) from John Major to Freddie Laker via every one of us. Big business might be a bit like a lottery, but no one likes a bastard getting to the top. And no bastard looks, acts or plays his hand like Richard "Robin Hood" (but bloody rich) Branson.

VIRGIN ATLANTIC

Launched in 1984, Virgin Atlantic Airways has an annual turnover of pounds 600m and a 22% share of the British transatlantic market. The airline carries 1.69 million passengers each year

VIRGIN COLA

Launched in November 1994, it takes 7.9% of the supermarket cola market. Turnover is pounds 35m. Other products in the Virgin Trading Company Group include Virgin Vodka and Virgin Lips

VIRGIN MEGASTORES

The Virgin Megastore concept was launched in 1988 and the 47th UK Megastore is opened in Carlisle today. The annual turnover in the UK is pounds 400m. The company turns over pounds 700m worldwide. Virgin Megastores takes 25% of the UK home entertainment market, 6% worldwide

VIRGIN DIRECT

FINANCIAL SERVICES

Virgin Direct has sold pounds 100m worth of Personal Equity Plans in the nine months since it was launched in March this year. It has so far taken 10% of the PEPs market, selling 30,000 over the phone

VIRGIN RADIO

Established in 1993 Virgin Radio has 4.6 million listeners nationwide. Virgin FM (London and South-east only) takes 4.5% of the market and Virgin AM (nationwide) takes 4.2% of the market. Virgin Radio had a turnover of pounds 10m to July 1995

VIRGIN CINEMAS

Virgin acquired the MGM chain in July 1995 in a pounds 195m deal. The company owns 40% of the chain. MGM cinemas had a turnover of pounds 110m last year, taking 23% of the UK cinema market

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