Christopher Jackson interviews the legendary Virgin founder as he navigates the choppy waters of the pandemic
Fame will sometimes have a blurring effect. Public presence sustained over a long period of time can create a confusing image. During a long and varied career, so much is attempted and commented on, it is as if longstanding celebrity contains geological layers. To get to the truth of what made someone famous in the first place is a form of excavation.
At 70, Sir Richard Branson has reached this level of fame. We think we know him, but he has come to mean different things to different people. The range of his businesses interests makes his precise contribution to the world difficult to pin down: from trains, music, journalism, space travel, healthcare and – what has given him many headaches during the pandemic – aviation, there is little he hasn’t attempted.
Indeed the three words ‘Sir Richard Branson’ are themselves a sort of paradox, the first word suggestive of establishment accommodation, and the latter two synonymous with daredevilry, rebellion and harmless fun.
Branson was born in Blackheath, London to soldier and barrister James Branson, and Eve, an entrepreneur. Eve sadly died of Covid-19 in January 2021, aged 96. When we caught up with Branson shortly afterwards, he was happy to engage extensively, and submitted to our questions always in good humour, making sure we had what we wanted.
When I offer my condolences, he replies that it’s his mother’s spirit he prefers to recall: “I don’t believe in mourning, I believe in celebrating incredible lives – and my mum really did lead quite a remarkable life,” he explains. “She had such a zest for life – and even at 96-years-old, she had the same energy and wit she had when I was a boy. When I was growing up she was always working on a project; she was inventive, fearless, relentless – an entrepreneur before the word existed.”
Eve’s example gave the young Branson an ingredient the entrepreneur cannot do without: gumption. Educated at Scaitcliffe School in Egham, and then at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, Branson would give the UK educational system short shrift, famously leaving school at 16. Partly due to his dyslexia, and partly because of inherent restlessness, one gets the sense that he never felt comfortable in educational institutions. With a can-do spirit the world would later come to associate with his companies, he simply set about creating structures better suited to his gifts.
Parental support empowered him in that decision: “The values that my mum and dad instilled in my siblings and I are lessons that have lasted a lifetime,” he recalls. “They taught us the importance of hard work, of not taking yourself too seriously, of treating people how you wish to be treated, of entrepreneurship, and so much more. They showed us how family is the most important thing in the world and surrounded us with love and encouragement.”
Of course, it was never plain-sailing. Not long before James’s death, Branson mèreand pèregave an interesting interview to the Wall Street Journal where Eve in particular eschews diplomatic language: “Let’s say he [Richard] was unusual at school. We didn’t know whether he was 99 per cent stupid and one per cent rather exceptional. We hung onto that one per cent.”
This is the sort of joke only an affectionate mother would make and there’s no doubting Branson as he recalls: “I was inspired by how my mum used her entrepreneurial energy to help others. I spend a lot of time now working with the Virgin Group’s foundation Virgin Unite to challenge the unacceptable and to try and find entrepreneurial solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. My mum is always an inspiration, spurring me on and encouraging me to think bigger.”
At first, thinking big meant leaving school. Many who have been to Stowe school, with its spreading Capability Brown gardens, will feel they could happily walk there forever. It is telling that Branson was immediately restless: even at this distance, knowing what he went on to achieve, you can sense his itchiness to get on.
I’m only where I am today because I’ve failed along the way.Sir Richard Branson
In 1967, Branson founded Student magazine – a magazine not dissimilar in intention and readership to the one you are reading. It still seems an odd choice of first venture for someone with professed dyslexia. At the time, he thought it would be the making of him. In reality, it turned out to be something as important: his first mistake. “I’m only where I am today because I’ve failed along the way,” he tells me. “That’s a failure which always stands out to me, failing to convince a major publishing house to invest in Studentmagazine. Even as a teenager, I had a huge vision for a whole host of new Student enterprises, from magazines to travel companies to banks. Unsurprisingly, they ran a mile.”
Was that beneficial to him in the long run? “I didn’t know it back then, but this was the seed of an idea that grew into becoming the Virgin brand. I carried on building businesses I loved and believed in. Fast-forward half a century and Virgin spans even more sectors than I dreamed of as a teenager.”
You get the sense that these failures give him perspective now during the difficulties of the pandemic. When Branson founded the Virgin record store in Oxford Street in the early 1970s, there was a dicey episode when Branson’s parents had to re-mortgage the family home after Branson ran into difficulty with the tax authorities, having been caught selling discount records for export only. Eve would later tell the Wall Street Journal in her brisk way: “That was pretty horrifying.”
Over time Virgin Records – whose value had been increased by the signing of numerous artists, including Mike Oldfield and his Tubular Bells album – would go global and eventually sell for around £560 million. Even then, Branson wasn’t completely out of the woods. Libel litigation lay ahead between the newly founded Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. Branson won a record payment of $945,000 in damages, famously sharing the award with the employees.
As significant as his financial success, Branson had created a style of doing business which caught the public imagination. In time, column inches accrued in a way not wholly dissimilar from the way in which on the other side of the Atlantic they accrued for Donald Trump. Different in numerous other respects, both were perfect magazine fodder for the excesses of the 1980s.
While it’s been the most challenging year for all businesses, what has kept me going is the spirit and resilience from our people across the Virgin GroupSir Richard Branson
However allegedly shy, Branson was a natural front man for his businesses. Keen to find out more about his business ethos, I ask him how he keeps his staff happy and motivated. “I’ve always said, take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business,” Branson replies.
And that’s a principle still true in the age of Covid-19? “While it’s been the most challenging year for all businesses, what has kept me going is the spirit and resilience from our people across the Virgin Group. Our people really are the thing that makes our brand different and special, we are lucky to have a brilliant group of people who believe in what they’re trying to do, which is to change business for good.”
Of course, most businesses will parrot that line. With Branson you sense his sincerity – partly because he was among the first to talk like this. “Over the years we have always tried to give our people the freedom to be themselves and to treat them like adults,” Branson elaborates. What does this mean in day-to-day? “One example is our unlimited holiday policy at Virgin Management. We introduced this a few years ago and the response has been very positive. The assumption behind it is that people will only take leave when they feel comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence won’t damage the business.”
What does he think of keeping regular office hours? “We should focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days they work. We don’t need a vacation policy,” he says.
The reality of Virgin is pretty close to what you’re seeing or reading. It’s a progressive company that is looking to change the way people work so it becomes more human and less corporate – and at the same time trying to do corporate things.Oliver Osgood, CEO of Masterplant, and formerly CEO of Virgin Pure
I’m keen to find out if this is corroborated by people who have worked for Branson. Oliver Osgood, formerly CEO of Virgin Pure, and now the CEO of Masterplant, a fast-growing portfolio of cannabis brands and assets, tells me: “The reality of Virgin is pretty close to what you’re seeing or reading. It’s a progressive company that is looking to change the way people work so it becomes more human and less corporate – and at the same time trying to do corporate things. There are companies where the outside is a reflection of the inside and I’d say that’s a fair comment here.”
Osgood is one of many who feel a loyalty towards Branson, having seen his operation from the inside.
With that in mind, I ask Branson about the new trend for flexible working. In fact, Branson was running Virgin like a pandemic-conscious company before anyone had heard of Wuhan or the South African variant: “We’ve offered flexible working at Virgin Management for many years, long before the pandemic,” he explains. “I’ve never worked in an office, or ‘nine to five’ for that matter. Obviously, this doesn’t work for every single role across our businesses, for example a pilot, but we try and encourage it where it’s possible.”
With Branson, I keep finding myself reminded of the Noel Coward dictum: ‘The thing about work is, it’s so much more fun than fun.” Branson is sufficiently retiring not to be too garrulous about his lifestyle; on the other hand he’s gregarious enough to own a private island and invite celebrities to it.
Never go round a swimming pool when Richard’s there, you’ll end up in the pool whether you’ve got clothes on or notTravel consultant, Fred Finn
If you want to know the real stories about Necker, the private island he has owned since 1978, you have to talk to those around him.
In person, Branson is light-hearted, even goofy. Fred Finn, travel consultant and old friend of Branson, warns me: “Never go round a swimming pool when Richard’s there, you’ll end up in the pool whether you’ve got your clothes on or not.”
If you were imagining there’s a hierarchy as to who ends up in the pool and who doesn’t, you’d be mistaken. Liz Brewer, the noted impresario, recalls:“I had to heal a rift between Ivana Trump and Richard after he cheekily performed his ‘party trick’ at the Business Traveller of the Year Awards at the Hilton Park Lane, turning her upside-down.” This appears not to have gone down well with Trump wife no.1. To fix the matter, Brewer resorted to shuttle diplomacy conducted through cunning table placement: “I placed him at Ivana’s end of the 120-guest table at the engagement party I arranged at Syon Park before her marriage to her then future husband Riccardo Mazzuchelli. All was healed from then on and Ivana returned to flying Upper Class Virgin.”
I cannot help asking whether the 45thPresident of the United States was there at any of those occasions? “I seem to recollect that Richard had lunch with the Donald once, having been invited by him to his home, when one of Trump’s ventures had gone under,” Brewer replies, adding: “These two in personality were poles apart, both in motive and manner.”
It is difficult even so, not to conjure an image of Trump rotating through the air, an orange whirl of confusion turning into resentment, as a sniggering Branson scutters away. More seriously, it is worth noting that while Trump has his name on many things – sometimes, it seems, on everything– Branson’s publicity is undertaken for Virgin as a brand.
Presidents and Lions
Presidential friendships turn out to be a leitmotif of Branson’s life. In particular, he became friends with former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Branson tells me: “Nelson Mandela remains one of my biggest heroes and a global symbol of liberation, hope and equality.” What memories does he have of the great statesman? “I have many lovely memories of spending time together. From working on human rights issues together to forming The Elders [a group of global leaders working independently for peace], his humour and humility always stood out to me. He redefined what it means to be a great leader and taught us all how powerful forgiveness can be.”
Another figure he got to know well is the 44thPresident of the United States Barack Obama: “I have had the privilege of spending some time with Barack, too,” Branson tells me. “It was a huge honour to be able to invite him and Michelle down to the British Virgin Islands for a break after Barack finished his second term as President and the family left the White House.” So what’s he like? “Barack has an insatiable curiosity for information and is always keen to learn. He also approaches every situation with a natural optimism, humour and warmth. All of these things makes him a great listener and a great leader.”
In addition to this sociable side, there is also Branson’s much chronicled fearless streak. Fred Finn recalls: “I took him on safari with his kids for two weeks at Ol Pegeta ranch, then owned by Tiny Rowland. There were 18 lions in a three-acre chicken-wire cage. We turned up just as they were about to throw meat towards this rugby lineout of lions. Richard crouched near the fence and took a photograph of one lion. Then another jumped at Richard through the fence, and Richard reeled back, ending on top of the Land Rover. Instead of being frightened, he said, “Put my son on my shoulders, let’s do that again.”
So fearless then? Finn replies: “Either that or publicity! After that he asked Tiny Rowland to buy the place and Tiny said: ‘When you’re good enough in business you can talk to me’.”
Rowland died in 1998, but if he were alive today would he think Branson ‘good enough in business’? The figures don’t look too bad. Branson’s net worth is estimated by Forbes at $6.5 billion. Inevitably for someone of his stature he has had his detractors. In 2019, he attracted criticism for suing the government over Chris Grayling’s decision to disqualify Virgin Trains from tendering for the West Coast route. At issue was the question of whether Branson would take on a significant share of liability for paying out pensions to some 346,000 staff while running the services. The High Court took the government’s side.
When I approached Grayling for a comment, he kindly declined, but added that he is spending his time on the back benches working with the aviation sector to keep it alive during the tribulations of the pandemic. One would assume that Grayling backs the £1.2 billion rescue deal Branson secured on behalf of Virgin Atlantic with the government in June 2020.
Resilience comes from failing and learning from those failures – and learning to still move forward. We all fail. Making mistakes is part of being human.Sir Richard Branson
That, too, was a difficult time PR-wise. As part of the negotiations, Branson offered to put Necker Island forward as security. At a time when many were struggling with lockdown in small flats, it was irritating for some to be reminded that he had a private island at all.
The resulting deal is a reminder too that the Virgin empire is by no means owned entirely by Branson. 49 per cent of Virgin Atlantic is owned by Delta; Forbes recently reported that Virgin owes the minority shareholder £200 million.
But the fact remains that Branson has done what entrepreneurs do: survived. How has he managed during such a difficult time? “Resilience is a lesson we can all learn every day,” Branson tells me. “Resilience comes from failing and learning from those failures – and learning to still move forward. We all fail. Making mistakes is part of being human. If you can pair your failures with an openness to learn, curiosity and a sense of humour, you’re on your way to discovering resilience.”
This feels like earned wisdom and it’s something he’s keen to pass on. What would he say to the younger generation of entrepreneurs? “I always encourage them to try and find opportunities in challenges and if you get knocked down, to get back up. Over and over again.” There is quite a lot packed into that ‘over and over again’. Branson, I’m reminded, is very seasoned now; his youthful approach almost makes you forget that he has reached his three score and ten.
He continues: “It’s also important to learn to rest when you need to, rather than quit. In the face of great challenges, sometimes you just need some downtime to reassess and look at the problem from a different angle. I often have my best thinking time when I’m doing some exercise that I enjoy, like kitesurfing or cycling. Resilience isn’t a constant show of strength, it’s lots of little steps in the right direction that all eventually add up.”
Branson is also enlightening on the question of social media. “It’s changed everything,” he says. “When I first started out in business, things were a lot different – I used to reply to letters and if it was urgent, I’d be on the phone. I enjoy checking on my social media feeds and find it really interesting to see everyone’s views on what’s going on in the world. I often blog and post about the issues I care about, from celebrating achievements in the Virgin family to trying to end the death penalty or working to encourage drug policy reform.”
Is there anyone whose social media use he particularly admires? “One of the biggest benefits of social media is brands now have a direct link to their customers and communities. Look at brands like Gymshark; the founder, Ben Francis, has used social media to build the brand from the very beginning. They have a truly digital-first approach, and were ahead of the curve.” Does he feel kinship with Francis? “Ben started the business in 2012, and thanks in part to its rapid growth on social media, it’s recently been valued at £1 billion. Ben started the business when he was 19 from his parents’ garage in Birmingham, while juggling studying at university in Birmingham, and evening shifts delivering pizzas.” That certainly reminds me of a young Branson.
Branson gives no signs of slowing down. How does he see technology fitting into Virgin’s path forward? “We’ve always used technology to elevate the experience for our customers wherever we can. From Virgin Atlantic being the first to offer seatback entertainment in all classes back in the early 90s, to Virgin Money recently launching a digital bank in Australia, or personalising your stay at a Virgin Hotel through its Lucy app, to earning and spending rewards across the Virgin Group with our loyalty programme Virgin Red. The opportunities are endless.”
In the Penalty Box
Of late Branson has become particularly interested in the death penalty. “It’s inhumane and barbaric, fails to deter or reduce crime and is disproportionately used against minorities and other vulnerable and marginalised groups,” he explains. When did he become interested in the issue?” “It was after hearing powerful personal stories of miscarriage of justice, such as Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years on Alabama’s death row for crimes he couldn’t have committed. Unfortunately, there are many harrowing stories similar to his.”
Branson believes that business doesn’t do enough to rally round on these key issues. What sets his latest endeavour apart is precisely this sense of the powerful joining forces on behalf of the public good. “I’m proud to have joined a global group of executives, supported by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, in launching the Business Leaders’ Declaration Against the Death Penalty. Together, we are highlighting the case for abolition and calling on governments to end the practice. If you are a business leader reading this – I would urge you to join our movement.”
So what is Branson’s legacy likely to be? Osgood is particularly insightful on what the group has achieved: “Virgin Galactic is the first time he’s tried to start a new industry. Usually the group targets overweight, inefficient industries.” Osgood starts to list them: “Doing trains better, doing phones better, doing broadband better, doing flights, doing banking better, creating Virgin Money lounges, rather than those horrible branches with people behind glass.” Then he hits on it: “Creating an environment where the customer feels happy. It’s the stewardess who makes you sure you have a comfortable flight and doesn’t bug you about your baggage allowance.”
That seems an impressive contribution in its own right, and you can feel Osgood’s enthusiasm – one of many aspiring CEOs who has learned much from Branson’s approach.
Meanwhile, Liz Brewer recalls a magnetic friend: “Richard is a truly refreshing ‘ideas man’, entrepreneur, humanitarian and someone who always impressed me with his positive attitude and the ability to stay firmly focused.”
So having dug beneath the geological layers of his fame, what is Branson really like? Uniqueness is never far from a discussion of him.
To interview a billionaire can be a mixed experience. I recall the unhappy obsequious acolytes around a certain aviation entrepreneur I once spent several days with, but all of Branson’s people seem happy. I recall the shifty banality of a media mogul of my acquaintance, but the Virgin Group feels transparent, and fundamentally benevolent. Above all, there is sometimes the sense that wealthy individuals aren’t enjoying life in some fundamental way; the opposite must be said about Branson. The only way for a rich man to be saved from the corruption of wealth is for money to be tethered to purpose. Branson’s life isn’t in the end primarily a story about the acquisition of money: it is about doing good, attempting the difficult or even the impossible, and doing it in the sunshine. It is this which makes him a hero to many.
Osgood recalls: “When he’s in the room, everyone’s excited. He claims to be a shy guy but I don’t believe that for a minute. He does get nervous. It’s more the aura, and the way he conducts himself. Lots of people see him cynically. He takes risks, and his intentions are good. But the businesses have a purpose: they’re good for people, and good for planet.”
Good for people, good for planet. That’s not a bad epitaph – and it’s certainly one he’s earned.