Dominic Lawson: If I were a Northern Rock customer, I would not welcome the arrival of Richard Branson

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The Independent Online

Richard Branson has sent out a letter addressed to "Dear Northern Rock customers". After setting out the virtues of his bid for the ailing company, Sir Richard concludes: "I hope that you will continue to be a customer of our new and exciting bank."

Blimey. If I were a customer of Northern Rock, the very last think I should be looking for is excitement. It was exciting banking which got Northern Rock into such a mess in the first place. What any Northern Rock customer ought now to want is a prolonged period of boredom. Indeed, boring reliability is the attribute we generally hope to find in any bank manager, especially at times of great economic uncertainty. If you want excitement with your money, go to the race-track or the casino.

Yet that pledge of excitement is the true Richard Branson, a man who appears to relish living on the edge, whether ballooning around the world, abseiling (somewhat painfully) down skyscrapers, or throwing fully-clad women into swimming-pools: the last is the most risky. The idea that such an adrenalin junkie should own a bank, responsible for people's life savings, seems, to me at least, highly counter-intuitive.

That I should think this clearly marks me out as not in touch with the prevailing mood. Up until the moment that the Virgin-led consortium was declared to be a "preferred bidder", depositors' cash had continued to leak out of the Northern Bank at an alarming rate. After the announcement, the rate of cash withdrawal slowed by 75 per cent. It is also the bleakest possible comment on public faith in the word of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the likelihood of Richard Branson taking over seems to be worth much more than an absolute Government guarantee to depositors which Alistair Darling, after an initial hesitation, had made to stop the run on the Rock.

It's understandable that the Government should want to get off that hook, not to mention the even bigger hook of 23bn (and rising) which it has pumped into Northern Rock to fund its mortgage-lending commitments. Its evident, almost panicky, need for a quick sale which has been forcibly impressed on what remains of the Northern Rock board naturally played into the hands of Richard Branson; he stands to gain control of assets worth over 100bn (in so far as such loans can be described as assets) in exchange for little more than 200 million.

Not only that, but it's clear that Sir Richard will do with this bank what he did when Virgin Media merged with the troubled cable TV company NTL: charge all the other shareholders millions of pounds a year for the right to use the Virgin name, the money payable to Sir Richard personally, c/o Necker, the British Virgin Islands.

Branson does very well out of this sort of licensing deal according to the Sunday Times Rich List, he is now worth over 3bn, and therefore the richest self-made British-born businessman. Fortune magazine, however, states Branson's wealth at little more than half the Sunday Times figure. This state of confusion about the tycoon's actual worth is hardly surprising. As the respected ex-City editor Frank Kane has written of Branson: "Financial journalists can make no sense of the figures filed by his companies, a mish-mash of around 250 private and offshore corporations, further confused by frequent changes of name at year-end."

This opacity is, however deliberate it might be, not the same thing as illegality. Not at all. Nevertheless, it is still the case that in order to become a licensed deposit-taker (a bank, in other words) you must satisfy the official regulator, the Financial Services Authority, that you are "a fit and proper person".

Branson's existing financial business is not a licensed deposit-taker, the FSA told me yesterday: it added that it was conducting its usual checks to establish Branson's fitness and properness, though it admitted that it was working on these at much more than its normal speed, because of the time deadline being imposed by the Government on any deal to take the Rock's liabilities off its books. (Incidentally, part of the Branson deal is to charge Northern Rock 250m for the Virgin Money business, a remarkable sum for something which makes no more than 10m pre-tax: the man has a proven genius for selling his name for a price which the buyer later might regret.)

Yet how can Richard Branson not be described as a fit and proper person, you might ask: has he not been knighted by Her Majesty the Queen? Well, yes, he has; though I'm told that this award was greeted with a certain gnashing of teeth by the Inland Revenue, and not just because Branson is a consummate practitioner of legal tax avoidance. They haven't forgotten that in 1971 the young Richard Branson was arrested and charged for a complex and wholly illegal tax avoidance scheme involving his nascent records business. He also managed to avoid prison, although not a substantial fine.

More recently Branson's Virgin Atlantic admitted to colluding with British Airways on a fuel price-fixing scheme which cheated the customers of both airlines out of many millions of pounds. With its usual fleet-footedness, it was Virgin which went to the authorities to own up to the illicit deal, and thus lumbering BA, which ended up paying vast fines. Virgin insists that Sir Richard had known nothing of this illegal price-fixing and given the very decentralised nature of his business, this is entirely believable. Nevertheless, since the essence of Virgin's image is that it is on the side of the little guy, unlike the big bad multinationals, it is astonishing that Branson did not see fit to apologise personally for his company's actions.

Still, it is also a tribute to the extraordinary self-publicising skills of Richard Branson that the general public seems able to forgive him anything although perhaps an exception might need to be made for the customers of his West Coast railway line. Perhaps it is the case, as the Government seem to believe, that only a hype-merchant of Branson's unpuncturable bounciness can pump air into the utterly flat balloon that is Northern Rock. Indeed, one on the inside of the negotiations told me that they have nicknamed the new entity "Virgin Rocks".

They might be right, but I find it hard to believe that there are no experienced and respected bankers who could restore the reputation of the business without charging shareholders such an astonishingly high price. On the other hand, if Branson does turn Northern Rock round and makes a financial killing, the Government can reassure itself that the British people will resent such a coup infinitely less than they would if it had been perpetrated by some offshore private equity firm. The fact that Richard Branson is in reality the king of offshore private equity will go unnoticed. 'Cos he's a great guy, isn't he?

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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