You only live once

The derring-do of Sir Richard Branson in business and life

by

LONDON — Virgin Group boss Sir Richard Branson is one of the world’s most well-known and visible entrepreneurs. Recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, the word “tycoon” would normally apply to a businessman with his financial and political clout.

But it never is. The image of a tycoon is of a voracious, smart-suited money hunter trampling all before him. It’s an image Branson has enjoyed avoiding. The 49-year-old from southern England is the original middle-class, English hippie (i.e., not a real hippie). His airline, Virgin Atlantic, was once referred to by the media as the “hippie airline,” while his autobiography, “Losing My Virginity,” describes him early on in his career as leaning decidedly toward a sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll-type lifestyle (his bankers once said they knew he was in trouble if he wore a suit to see them).

But the one-time journalist wannabe (his dyslexia wouldn’t have helped going down that road) made the transition from “almost” to “made it” without even noticing. One day he was thinking big; the next, he was big.

Branson, who left school at 16 with minimal qualifications, now controls a multibillion-dollar empire that employs 35,000 people. He is reportedly Britain’s third-richest man and is said to be worth 3 billion pounds ($4.7 billion).

His rise up the financial ladder started with a mail-order record firm — the original Virgin Records — followed by record shops, a recording studio, a record label and an airline.

Now, the Virgin Group’s interests include cinemas, soft drinks, publishing, radio, hotels, holidays, personal finance, cosmetics, railways, the Internet and mobile phones. Branson also owns the London Broncos rugby team, a stunning island in — naturally — the Virgin Islands, and Heaven, Europe’s most famous gay nightclub.

His success has not always come easy, or even legally. In the early years, Virgin had to beg, borrow and steal to stay afloat. Branson didn’t literally steal, but he was arrested in 1971 for tax evasion after hatching a scheme to avoid paying taxes on his stock of records by pretending to export them. He settled out of court and had to pay 60,000 pounds ($100,000) in back tax and penalties.

In 1992, he had to sell off his record label (for $1 billion) to keep the airline afloat when the banks refused to extend him credit.

His business ventures have been interspersed with dramatic and dangerous personal adventures, partly as a means of publicity, partly to satisfy a need to challenge himself. He broke the record for crossing the Atlantic in a boat, became the first person to cross the Atlantic in a balloon and the first to cross the Pacific by balloon. He also made three attempts to circumnavigate the world by balloon.

In his book, Branson describes how his mother constantly set him challenges (on one occasion, when Branson was 4, she drove him several kilometers from his home and challenged him to find his way back), and this almost pathological need to challenge himself and the status quo continues to provide the spark behind the man.

Branson’s empire continues to grow and his knighthood reflects the respect that he enjoys in Britain — and the rest of the world — as a businessman, as an adventurer, as a man of integrity and as the quintessential, self-deprecating Englishman.

However, Branson’s grinning, Mr. Nice Guy image is not one that everyone agrees with, particularly British Airways whose vicious “dirty tricks” campaign to destroy Virgin Atlantic came unstuck when Branson sued and won a record 600,000 pounds ($1 million) in damages. But it is the image that regularly gets spread across the front pages of newspapers in Britain and around the world.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times at his London home, Branson talked about his image, his initial success, his business philosophy and his life.

But as the man who ripped the heart out of British Airways and defied death at sea and in the air settled into his comfy armchair, he came unstuck on the first question, the one question that truly defines a man — or, at least, a semi-unreconstructed hippie who made his fortune in rock ‘n’ roll.

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What’s your favorite album?

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of a band called the Stereophonics. We started a new record company and they were the first band we came across and umm . . . umm . . . umm . . . they have a tremendous singer, great songwriter umm . . . umm . . . excellent performers. They’re almost like a modern-day Police I suppose, very credible, a band that should be around in 20 years time. I don’t have time to listen to a lot of music, but they were a band that excited us and we thought we’d start a new record company (V2 Records) on the back of them in the same way that many years ago we started Virgin Records with Mike Oldfield.”

Yes, but what was your favorite album before you had the record company?

“I suppose it would be something related to the history of Virgin. I’m trying to think which one would be umm . . . err . . . umm . . . ‘Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s the Sex Pistols’ was a turning point in my life. I started the record company when I was a bit of a hippie in the late ’60s, and the company was stagnating somewhat . . . and we needed something radical to shake us up and put us on the map. A couple of other record companies had signed the Sex Pistols and dropped them and so it was something that changed the direction for Virgin. It attracted people like Phil Collins and Genesis, the Rolling Stones and Lenny Kravitz and a whole raft of new bands, so it was an important turning point.”

Yes, but what’s YOUR favorite album?

“I suppose (Mike Oldfield’s) ‘Ommadawn’ is my personal favorite album. People don’t know it anything like ‘Tubular Bells,’ but it’s a lovely, haunting album.”

Who was the most important to Virgin — Mike Oldfield or the Sex Pistols?

“Mike obviously gave us our leg up and got us going and the Sex Pistols maybe wouldn’t have existed in the way that they did if it hadn’t been for him. The airline most probably wouldn’t have existed, too. When we launched the airline, people joked that Boy George built the wings and Mike Oldfield the fuselage — different people, different parts.”

“Tubular Bells” went on to sell 13 million copies, but how many did you expect to sell when you released the record?

“We took guesses of 15-25,000, but we knew nothing about the music business so we had no way of comparing it with what had gone before. We all knew we loved the album and played it to everybody or anybody who’d listen, and any fanatical zeal I had in promoting anything all went into that one project. And it was a project that was not easy to promote, because it was one long piece of music, and radio only played music with three-minute tracks. It also wasn’t easy to promote in that Mike Oldfield refused to do any interviews and refused to make videos and was a recluse.”

What did you know about music at the time?

“Not a lot. I knew if listened to a record, I either liked it or disliked it. I wasn’t ingrained with music because I left school at 15 and was running a magazine and trying to get the magazine to survive. It meant working day and night unlike other people my age who were at school or college and had the evenings to listen to music. I was battling to keep my ventures going and so really never had the time to put my feet up, get stoned and listen to music as most of my friends were doing at the time. Fortunately, I had friends who loved music and I surrounded myself with friends whose passion in life was music — and so we balanced each other.”

What made you take the leap from selling records by mail order to opening up shops and then to making records?

“(At the time when we started) there was no credibility in the music stores and music was sold as you’d sell baked beans. We felt we could do it with a bit more style and panache. The reason we started a record company was because Mike (Oldfield) came to us with a tape, we sent him around to every other record company in Britain and nobody would sign him. We felt strongly the tape was special, so we literally decided to start a record company to release Mike Oldfield’s music.”

You started Virgin Atlantic because you were dissatisfied with the service you found on planes at the time. Is your motivation always personal or does it start with money?

“I think I can say I have never been motivated by doing anything with whether it’s going to make money or not. On that basis, I think almost all the things I’ve done I would never have done. When we started the airline, people thought we were completely and utterly mad. It was just after Freddie Laker had failed and you just didn’t go into the airline business to make money. The reasons I’ve done things is partly just for something to do, something enjoyable to do — in the early days it was a social thing, a fun thing, and partly because we thought we could make a difference in a particular area.”

So the motivation is from your own personal life?

“I think that is the best way of launching any business; it should be from your own personal experience or your own personal frustrations where you feel you can do things better than it’s being done by other people. The only problem is I seem to have too many experiences (laughs). . . . One of the reasons why we get involved in a lot of different things is my own inquisitiveness — I love learning about new areas and I’m intrigued in new things I know little about, so by actually getting involved in something it becomes interesting.

“My initial desire in life was to be a journalist and one of the nice things about being a journalist is you are learning all the time. Doing what I’m doing, I’m having a crash course in new industries regularly.”

What about the Zorro syndrome or the Robin Hood image — the righting of wrongs and stuffing the rich?

“I enjoy doing that and it’s a lot more fun than doing something that creates wrong; it’s exciting to do. You only live life once; you might as well enjoy what you’re doing. It’s fun to turn industries on their head which are ripping off the consumer and trying to make sure those industries are never the same again. And if in the process we can pay the bills and keep everybody in work, that’s even more fun. Why would the person who brought you the Sex Pistols want to bring you a financial services company? Most of my friends would say: ‘Don’t do it,’ but there’s an industry that takes the consumers for a ride more dramatically than any other industry and with hidden charges and wonderful jargon like ‘bid offer spreads,’ which means basically we’ll take 5 percent of your money before we’ve even started. So I felt it was just the kind of thing Virgin should do to make it more simple, and I found it just as much fun doing that as running a record company.”

But when, and how, do you reconcile idealism with realism and commercialism?

“I think there’s no point in doing something unless you feel you have some sort of passion for it and you feel strongly that you can make a difference and you feel strongly that you can create something that you and your staff are proud of creating. If you have all those ingredients, then it should work out commercially. It doesn’t always, but it should do. In fact, I think the one thing that hasn’t worked out really successfully for us is our launch into Virgin Cola; I think I got tempted to do that just because it was taking on Coca Cola. . . . Realism comes in quite quickly. Maybe you start something from an idealistic point of view, but then you’ve also got to survive, you’ve got to pay the salaries. I’ve got 35,000 people working for Virgin, so there’s idealism with quite a good smattering of realism as well.”

How do you deal with failures and disappointments?

“Fortunately, I’m not the kind of person who looks back. I’m also lucky in that I shut out the disappointments in my life and only remember the good things. The biggest disappointment at the time was having to sell the record company in order to keep the airline alive at a time when British Airways were attacking us quite ruthlessly in what has become known as the dirty tricks campaign. It was a bit like selling a healthy child to save an ill child, but the record company’s gone on from strength to strength.”

Have you found it different doing business in Japan?

“People always write about how different it is, but personally I don’t think it is significantly different. To date, we have brought in partners with most of the ventures, although more recently we’re building cinema multiplexes and are doing it on our own. I think that, as anywhere in the world, if you can find the right people and give them a lot of freedom to make mistakes as well as make good things and you put a lot of trust in them, then you can build companies in Japan without partners. You just have to get really, really good staff.”

Is it possible not to be Richard Branson, the business icon?

“Yes, when we draw up the drawbridge then I’m certainly not; when I’m at home, I’m certainly not. But I don’t regret being Richard Branson in the public sense because it helps me achieve what I want to achieve in life. Before I was well known, London could be a lonely place — so, no regrets in that respect.”