Has he won the lottery? Can he win the lottery? Winner lottery

He likes to have fun, make waves, win. Andy Beckett on a very public businessman; profile; Richard Branson
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE ARE dirty plates stacked up in the kitchen above Richard Branson's office. There is a photocopier on the landing. All over the house where he oversees his 200 companies there are doors ajar, mugs left on tables, people wandering in and out. The house is certainly grand - creamy walls, white moulded ceilings, and all the vast stucco proportions the rich in west London acquire - but it is nothing like a modern corporate headquarters. Richard Branson's offices are like those of a student business, grown massively successful and rich.

For a man who is currently destabilising the Government, Richard Branson seems oddly unpolished, too. He appears suddenly at the top of the stairs without his famous smile. In his office, he sits on the edge of a rococo sofa, knees drawn up against his chest, fiddling constantly with a rubber band. Half-way through the interview, he abruptly offers tea and nearly runs out of the room to order it. He speaks hesitantly, beginning sentences loudly then letting them die away to a mumble, and even stutters: he has to say the word "philanthropy" four times.

Yet, thanks to this stuttering man, the Government's lottery regulator, Peter Davis, is currently "considering his position", and the conduct of the lottery as a whole has been questioned all week. Just because, on Monday, Branson went on Panorama, and in his diffident, cosy-jumpered way, accused GTECH, the American partners in Camelot, of bribing him not to bid for the lottery last year. GTECH called him a liar; he sued them. Official inquiries started examining Branson's allegations; and, most importantly, the press started examining Davis's connections to GTECH. He may be cursing Richard Branson when he goes to the Heritage Department to explain himself on Monday.

All this has shown Branson's power. And it has shown his ability to be bitter - his lottery bid was rejected nearly two years ago. More than this, Branson has shown himself aggrieved in a certain way: by an unfriendly Establishment's spurning of a high-profile piece of philanthropy. He had offered to run the lottery for nothing.

Richard Branson is very public for a British businessman. While Lord Hanson, for example, is caged in the City pages, Branson has the Princess of Wales wearing his sweatshirts. Teenagers name him in surveys as their role model; leader writers suggest him as president of a future republic. In return, Branson will do anything for PR but wear a tie.

"I decided to use myself to promote my company," he says. "If by turning up in a captain's outfit to promote our airline it gave the photographers a better picture, then I'd turn up in a captain's outfit. I'd feel kind of goofy sometimes - I'd think, 'Fucking hell, what am I doing dressed like this?' - but if it got on front pages of newspapers across the world ... That's five million pounds of advertising." When Branson crossed the Atlantic in his speedboat he spent most of the journey cramped up by the radio, giving continuous interviews. When his boat sank, he was rescued by a container ship and, like a bearded James Bond, invited straight to a black-tie dinner by the passengers.

Branson has used this kind of publicity for more than pure commerce. He has launched Margaret Thatcher's litter clear-up and promoted profit- free condoms during the Aids crisis. His reason for this suggests a wish for public gravitas to go with his gangly grin: "A company of Virgin's size has got the wealth of a small nation. I think you've got to put it to good use."

At the same time, Branson would still like to have the wealth of, say, a medium-size nation. In the next 10 years he wants to set up "maybe another hundred or so companies". As a private group of companies, Virgin values itself at pounds 1bn.

Branson would have you believe he does all this for the thrill of it. "I really want to learn about things and maybe do them better than they've been done by other people," he says, like an eager young inventor. "Once I've actually learnt about the ins and outs of something then I'd much rather learn about something else." He needs stimulus, or "fun": when he's sleepless in London, he sometimes goes round to the all-night offices of his Virgin radio station, and throws stones at the windows until someone comes down to chat to him.

Although Branson is 45 now, and there is grey in his beard and mane of hair, it is easy to see a hyperactive child in this behaviour. His second wife says he likes sticky puddings. He certainly likes attention: a fellow parent at the private school in Notting Hill where Branson sends his two children says he always wins the parents' 100m on sports day. John Brown, who runs Virgin's in-flight magazine, puts it this way: "He's gauche. If you're walking down the stairs with him, you'll always see him desperately thinking of something to say. And then he'll trip you up."

BRANSON was born in Surrey in 1950. His parents were middle-class but not rich, according to Tim Jackson, his latest biographer: his father was a struggling barrister, and his mother worked as a dancer and an air stewardess.

As a child he grew Christmas trees and bred budgies to make money. He failed in the latter; undeterred, he tried to set up a national magazine for students while he was still at school. Student managed to squeeze contributions out of John Le Carre, James Baldwin and other unlikely mid- Sixties names Branson found in Who's Who. "Branson's relentless," says Jackson. "When he thinks he's got a good deal he'll keep talking until he gets something better."

But he soon got diverted from journalism and into selling records by mail order to fund the magazine. Steve Lewis joined him in 1969, and worked for him for 23 years. At first it was a lark, he says. "We were kids. I never expected it to grow ... But maybe he did." By 1971 Virgin had company cars.

Virgin seemed to be run by hippies - Branson was living on a houseboat now, they all had the right hair - but "we wanted a good bottom line," says Lewis. "We just didn't think you had to put on suits and ties to get it." By 1973 Virgin had registered some of its income in an offshore trust.

Branson married, but, tied to the houseboat telephone all day, lost his wife to the genuinely bohemian Kevin Ayers of a jazz-rock band called the Soft Machine. Yet Virgin was a substantial record company now - thanks to signing up the more accessible hippie sound of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. Branson himself had little interest in music: later, he moved easily from selling Oldfield's pastoralism to selling punk.

He was no more sentimental about his business partners. In 1981 he eased out Nik Powell, his childhood friend and original collaborator. The same later happened to Randolph Fields, an American lawyer who brought Branson the idea for an airline.

Branson wanted sole control. When Virgin became a public company to raise money in 1986, he hated the outside scrutiny. In 1988 he borrowed money to buy it back. To pay this debt Branson ultimately had to sell Virgin Records; many employees felt an ideal had been lost, and left. But Branson gained pounds 320m, and regained his commercial freedom - his real raison d'etre.

And he had his jets now. Virgin Atlantic had first flown in 1984. It had never been especially profitable: "He could have done a lot better by leaving the money in the music business," says Mike Powell, an airlines analyst at Natwest Securities. Lewis agrees: "Everybody was unhappy about the airline to start with. It was very much Richard's thing."

Branson drops his jets awkwardly into conversation every few minutes. There are models of them on mantlepieces all over his house, and a fat book about modern airline rivalries sits on his desk. Today, the airline is the only one of the Virgin companies where Branson is both chief executive and chairman. When it won damages for British Airways' "dirty tricks" every Virgin employee received a pounds 166 "BA bonus".

Since the mid-Eighties Virgin has grown fast and, some say, at random. It runs a personal savings plan and Europe's biggest gay nightclub. "A lot of my companies I have hardly anything to do with," admits Branson. He gestures vaguely: "We've got Virgin Brides upstairs ... and telecommunications at the moment - whether we'll go into it I'm not sure."

Lewis sees over-stretch: "A lot of people whose opinions I respect are starting to say there will be a deal too many." Branson is bidding to run the Channel tunnel rail link and planning a round-the-world balloon trip. His ideas can seem rushed - he reputedly set up a holiday company called Virgin Snow because he liked the name - and don't always work: Virgin pubs and a Virgin ITV channel remain just ideas.

Branson can be bitter about the resistance he meets, like the class swot who can't understand the resentment. "Despite espousing the need for entrepreneurs, governments - in particular Conservative governments - feel much more comfortable with big business."

Given his Oxfordshire mansion and his private Caribbean island, this can seem like whining. But Branson can also be appealing: the mugs and the informality and the youthful eagerness of the Virgin employees outside his office show that. And Virgin's products still have a youthfully liberal quality to them. This is rare: Lord Hanson, you feel, wouldn't stock books about Ecstacy and small-selling dance tracks in record shops. And Branson's attention-getting and inability to grow up have given him a humanity to go with his success. He hands you a mug of tea himself.

Comments