Richard Branson Turns 50, Is Loaded
Inside the court of a troubled tycoon.
The Independent • July 2000
It’s 6:20pm. The field drifts up towards us slowly and noiselessly. Twisting the burner toggle one last time, Sir Richard Branson looks back over his shoulder, grinning his famous grin. "Bend your knees," he says cheerily, "in case I fuck this up."
Suddenly, the tiny wicker basket clatters into a 5ft-deep sea of crops and pitches over on to its side at an alarming angle. The air is filled with the smell of fresh runner beans, and there is a bump as we finally find the earth. The balloon is caught for a silent second by the chaos of broken vegetation. And then, as suddenly as it arrived, the balloon bounces free again, and, picked up by the wind, drifts away over Oxfordshire.
"Yes!" shouts Richard exultantly and holds his palm up to me for a high five.
Behind and 100ft below, a giant dark-green divot marks our passage through the field. For a moment, everyone in the basket, including the mildly nervy -looking man from Virgin Balloons who is ostensibly our pilot for the day, stares at it in silence. And then everyone cackles like hyenas. In the distance, a train bearing a Virgin logo trundles across the countryside.
"Right," says Richard, "who wants to have a go at flying a balloon?"
Richard Branson and I meet for the first time at nine o'clock one morning, for breakfast at his house outside Oxford. As I arrive, he is waiting anxiously on the gravel drive. It's a surprisingly modest house - the kind of place you'd expect a well-to-do footballer, or perhaps a successful builder, to live in. He thrusts his hand through the window of the taxi to shake my hand. Breakfast isn't ready, so he takes me for a walk. He sets off at a furious clip, not quite jogging pace, around the lake he has built behind the house. He is awkward and nervous. He hates doing interviews, he says. He finds it hard to talk to people he doesn't know. "Every time I agree to do one, I think, 'Oh, no. Why have I said I'll do this?'"
Later, when we sit down to talk, Branson is hopelessly inarticulate. He stares at the table and mumbles. Sometimes he'll complete a sentence. But most of his answers to direct questions are almost incoherently hesitant and trail off into silence. Wherever possible, personal topics are diverted into business spiel. A controlled, self-censoring emphasis on the positive means that he often sounds like a glib self-help book for capitalists. He laughs all the time - with the tense, staccato sound of the kid at school who's never quite sure whether everyone is laughing with him or at him. Over an hour, he looks me in the eye five times.
At one point, we discuss the polls that have variously voted him Britain's top role model for students, Britain's ideal boss, Britain's first choice to be president should the country became a republic. I ask him why he thinks he is so popular.
"Um... Hmm... the... um... well... mmm... I s'pose part of it... part of the um... you know, part of it is, maybe things like the boating and ballooning and a lot of young people have sort of grown up with... sort of... enjoyed those challenges with us and um... um and, um... the... I mean so f... so far, generally speaking things that... the companies we've set up have benefited people rather than dis-benefited people. We can talk about trains separately in a minute hahaha but, um, anyway. But um. And so um, you know, so I s'pose people can identify, identify with, identify with our companies. I mean if they fly Virgin Atlantic and have a good experience and, you know, feel that the fare that we charge them is a good one and so on, that... presumably... It's a very difficult question to ask, you know. Why are you so popular. How do you answer that?"
You must have thought about it, because all the companies are based on your face, your image and your persona. You sell them all.
"That's true. Um... I think generally speaking people who are well-respected in life or so-called heroes fuck up some time, and so far I haven't had a hahahaha major fuck-up. And one advantage of getting older is that I may actually, I might even actually just about get through life without doing anything like that... Anyway... Maybe the fact that I'm so bloody inarticulate that... hahaha... Anyway... those sorts of reasons... Come back to it. I'll think of some reasons for you."
Richard and I will talk more, and meet again - for a cricket match, to go hot -air ballooning. But, as it turns out, he never does think of those reasons.
Richard Branson celebrated his 50th birthday last Tuesday. As owner of the largest group of private companies in Britain, he oversees more than 200 Virgin enterprises which, at the last count, employed 25,000 people. His financial affairs are obfuscated by a Byzantine network of offshore funds and joint public-private ventures, but Will Whitehorn, Virgin's group strategy director, reckons Branson is, personally, worth some pounds 2.2bn, "give or take pounds 100m." In March, Branson was knighted.
With his ballooning and his boating exploits, he has become one of the most famous men in Britain. But his public ubiquity owes more to his game dedication to picking up pretty girls and capering about in fancy dress to promote his businesses - as Long John Silver; a Zulu warrior; Elvis; in a Victorian bathing costume; in a wedding dress; in his pants; naked. He attaches his face and his personality to every new Virgin scheme, making it impossible to pass a bus shelter at any given time of the year without glimpsing That Beard and Those Teeth. He has created an image of a try - anything dancing fool, a garrulous everyman, a universally accessible face for go-ahead Britain. It's easy to get the impression that he's a frantic self -publicist, always doing interviews and talking about himself. But he isn't and doesn't. He has his picture taken, and he distributes expedient soundbites about Virgin this and Virgin that. But he only does that because he has to; because Richard Branson long ago became the only true brand identity Virgin has.
In fact, he swallows hard every time he has to dress up in some pantomime rig. He knows he's just being asked to make a fool of himself in public again. "I don't particularly enjoy being the public front of Virgin," he says carefully. "I enjoy life... if I do anything I like to do it well. But if I had a choice, I wouldn't spend my time... I wouldn't spend as much time as I do promoting the businesses."
And the dressing up?
"I don't... as I say, I like it... I don't... You know, unless you take an approach to life that everything you do you have to do positively and enjoy it, life can be pretty tedious."
Is there anything he wouldn't dress up as?
Later, I ask him if it was ever his ambition to be famous.
"No," he says firmly.
12:35 pm: Richard's friends and family are playing cricket. He has organised a match every year at his house for the past 20 years, building a pitch specifically for the purpose. At the start of the day, he had loitered benignly in the background, sitting quietly with his 17-year-old daughter, Holly. But now, having had a few drinks, he moves easily among his guests, chatting amiably, holding babies. After batting (out for 18; including one six) he settles himself in a large group of wives and girlfriends. He stays there even when his team begins fielding.
He comes over to where I'm sitting, bringing a bottle of white wine. When he sees I'm drinking red, he insists on going away to get another bottle for me. He sits down.
"That's a six!" he yells suddenly toward the pitch. The umpire makes the appropriate sign with his hands. "Thank-yew!"
Later, we stand around on the boundary, and he has his picture taken. He hungrily eyes the cigarette I'm smoking. He gave up two and a half years ago, he says, but had something of a relapse the other night.
Would he like one, perhaps?
His face lights up. "Ooh, yes. We'll have to go over here."
We amble furtively toward a Moroccan-themed tent nearby, set up the night before, when it formed the centrepiece of his son Sam's 14th birthday party. He takes a cigarette. Just as he does so, two children roar past us on Go -Peds, and he snatches the cigarette from his mouth. "Christ! I thought that was my son. He'll be along in a minute. We'd better go further back."
And so we retreat into the shadows, leaning against the tent, out of sight of the minors, and he sucks greedily on a Marlboro Light. "God," he says, "I smoke these like joints, now. I get high from smoking a cigarette."
Has he read the writings of anti-smoking authority Alan Carr?
A look of mild embarrassment slides across his face. "I'm afraid," he says, "I wrote the introduction to Alan Carr's book. I am..." he exhales heavily... "the chairman of Parents against Tobacco. They asked me if I'd be chairman and I said, I can't: I smoke. And they said, you're exactly the person we want, because you know how difficult it is to stop."
He does his best. Last night, he explains, he rounded a corner near his office to find Sam with a drink in one hand, and something lit up in the other. He asked Sam if it was a joint or a cigarette. "It's a cigarette, Dad."
"In that case," said Richard Branson firmly, "you'll have to put it out."
Richard Branson, True or False, No 1: his two weaknesses are women and sticky cakes.
"Sticky puddings. Hahaha. Yeah. Guilty. I'm not saying any more than that."
To what extent?
"Sticky puddings. Hahahaha. I've always loved puddings. Rhubarb King was what I was known as as a child, but not to the extent of having to worry too much about the stomach. I've generally burnt them off and still enjoy sports and things - tennis, any sport I can find the time to do I love, so that balances off the sticky puddings. And, um, I love women. I just... What man doesn't? I enjoy their company. And I'm fortunate, I suppose, that at Virgin there are lots of delightful women that work for us. Lots of delightful guys as well. And, um, often out socialising, partying, having a good time. But I do report in to the wife at the end of the parties."
So you've never strayed from the path?
"If I had I certainly wouldn't be saying anything. But I'm a pretty public figure, and I'm sure temptation's come my way many a time. But I suspect the best - not an aphrodisiac, what's the reverse of an aphrodisiac? The best form of protection from straying is the public nature of my life. Every move I make is pretty well watched or vetted."
No 2: he uses charm and ordinariness, especially being the underdog, as a business tool.
"Charm and ordinariness. Um. Well. I think the stereotype of an entrepreneur who treads all over people to get to the top - the Dallas type of entrepreneur - I don't think makes good business sense. The very successful business people in Britain are more charming than tough, and you have to be, because you're going to come across the same people time and time again in your life. And also life is more enjoyable that way. If you're thoroughly unpleasant, then you're not going to sleep well at night, and if you don't sleep well at night then business isn't going to perform as well, so I think giving people the benefit of the doubt generally makes sense."
But the implication is that there's calculation at work: you're a bastard until you go out to work and then you're charming all day, but when you come home you kick the cat.
"Well... hahahaha... I don't know... actually I don't particularly like cats. They eat the birds. And the dog... Hahaha. Well, I would hope those implications are not correct anyway. You'd have to ask people who know me. Suzy?" he calls into the kitchen. "Do I kick the cat in the morning?"
From inside the kitchen, Suzy, Richard's home help, still busy with the breakfast things, makes muffled sounds of quizzical confusion.
"We don't have one, anyway."
6:45 pm: Branson flies the balloon at a steady 50ft over Oxfordshire, navigating over chimney pots and television aerials, clipping trees, looking in on barbecues. He leans out of the basket, shouting his observations and jokes at everyone we pass: "How're you doing?"; "Lovely garden!"; "Have you got a drink for me?" And, every once in a while, "Which way's America?"
Children chase us through council estates on bikes, putting their thumbs up and shouting: "All right, Richard?" There is a mixture of amazement and confusion on people's faces. One woman stands in her back yard, gazing up, her hands clasped to her face in shock. Her voice carries faintly upwards: "...my roof. I thought you were going to hit my roof..." Everyone waves.
We fly over another village, the inhabitants arranged on their back doorsteps, staring up in bafflement and curiosity. There is a party going on directly below, 10 people holding their cans of lager aloft. "Have you got one for me?" Richard shouts again. He turns: "Shall we land?" The garden is already behind us. A school is approaching fast. Between the two is perhaps 30ft of truncated playing field. He's obviously joking.
There is a good 10ft to spare between the balloon and the school when we hit the ground. Kids clamber off their bikes to hold the basket down, and Richard shakes each one of them by the hand. And then, with the balloon still visibly struggling against gravity, he's off in a crowd: 30, 40, 50, then 100 people appear from nowhere, wandering out of their gardens wearing the dazed expressions of an awestruck Pacific island cargo cult, staring from Branson to the balloon and back again. He discovers that someone called Mike has been having his retirement party and goes to the end of his garden to congratulate him. He shakes everyone warmly by the hand. He signs autographs: on scraps of paper; on napkins; on till receipts; on a pounds 5 note. Someone hands him a can of Fosters. Another gives him a barbecued beefburger. He is clearly having a fantastic time.
"He's brilliant," says a man called Graham, who has, like everyone else, just wandered out of his back garden. "Straight out of a balloon and having a chat with everybody. That's what makes him so great, I think. He's so approachable."
A little further away from the crowd stands Gavin. "Look at him," he says. "He's like a Messiah. Surrounded by pissheads. Drinking their beer. Smoking their fags." But in the end Richard Branson does not light a cigarette until he is on the way home, safely out of sight of the children. As the car winds through the lanes towards Kidlington, he says suddenly, "Do you know why we're changing the name of Virgin Trains?"
"Are you?" I ask, confused.
"'Cos they're fucked!"
Richard Branson has never bought a record in his life. He rarely reads books, because when he does, it absorbs him so completely he doesn't get anything else done. The last one he read was six months ago: Alex Garland's backpacker fantasy, The Beach. He doesn't believe in God. He doesn't collect art, or buy expensive cars. His wife, Joan, buys all his clothes for him. Fifteen years ago, the Russian government offered him the chance to go into space, but he refused; the training would have taken him away from business for too long. The most extravagant thing he ever bought was the Caribbean island of Necker, in the British Virgin Islands. He bought it on a whim in 1978, for pounds 180,000. These days, it's run as a luxury resort. When he goes there, he pays the going rate, just like anyone else: some pounds 12,000 a day. He knows he's ultimately paying himself, but thinks it helps to keep his feet on the ground. He doesn't much like being alone. When he goes on holiday, he rarely goes without 30 or 40 friends.
He has been approached to run for political office - last year to enter the contest for London mayor. He considered it, but decided he could do more for the country by staying outside politics. He still believes that running the National Lottery is the single most important thing he can do in his life.
10:20 pm: We're sitting on the balcony outside Richard's office, recently converted from the old mill beside his house. The apparently traditional post -balloon flight bottle of champagne has been followed by a second. The more he drinks, the more articulate he becomes. We talk for a long time; he defends in detail the record of the 100 Virgin companies that are losing money; he rails against the conspiracy of "spin" he perceives to be exemplified by Tom Bower's forthcoming hostile biography; and, finally, he talks about the trains. He is evangelical about Virgin's mission to tackle tasks no one else will touch - from challenging Coke and Pepsi to transforming Britain's most dilapidated railway routes. He insists that he does it not for the bottom line, but to make the customer's lot happier. "The best thing Virgin will be known for, three years from now, the best thing we will have done for this country, I believe people will say, is transforming the west coast main line from the worst to the best."
I ask him why he doesn't just give up and go and live on Necker. "At any time, with any of these companies, we could say, OK, we give up. Or we could sit on our laurels: the companies that we set up 10 years ago, we'll stick with, and we won't take these risks. But I think the public would like to see us challenge these established companies, I think it's right that we do...
"I've been born lucky, basically. I've learnt so much, I've had so many fantastic experiences... tonight we took off in a balloon and had the most fantastic flight I've had in a long, long time! You meet young people of six, seven, eight years old, who I think identify with what Virgin is doing, and you have to strive to make sure you don't let them down. Because every hero in their life fucks up some time in their lifetime. I'm approaching 50, but there's still more that can be done. Most business people implode, and the most sensible thing to make sure you don't fuck up is retire, draw a line... but I think it would be a waste. Someone's got to challenge the institutions.
"And if I set up 198 companies which are going to make money for Virgin or myself, and if I set up four companies which are not going to make money for myself but be positive for the country, why not? That's basically it. In a nutshell. My God! There you go."
11:15 pm: It is very dark, and becoming colder. We are both too drunk to conduct a coherent interview. I suggest I will ask one final question.
Me: What was the last dream you had?
Him: I've got the most embarrassing dream and I'm not going to tell you about it. I've only told my friends. I've never told the press (laughing drunkenly) so I'm not going to tell you.
Me: No, go on, go on.
Him (tapping hand nervously on the table and looking at the floor): I've got two dreams -
Me: No. Tell me the other one -
Him: - so I'll tell you the weakest one.
Me: No, no, no.
Him: I haven't drunk enough to tell you that one... Do you dream a lot?
Me: (Not wishing to fall for such a simplistic diversionary tactic, silent.)
Him: Yeah. Fuck. I need another cigarette to tell you this dream. Um. All right, anyway. Um. Well, I was talking to my friend Simon Draper, who used to run Virgin Records with me and we both had an incredible life together and we had both had a lot of things happening in our lives. I said to him, this is a dream that I can only tell you and nobody else about. It would be awful to ever read about it. I'm not sure I should tell anyone. Anyway. The gist of the dream... The dream was that there is a house somewhere in the world... (He falters again in embarrassment.) Fuck. I can't tell you the dream.
Me: Oh, come on!
Him: It's terrible. What one can tell your friends and what one can tell the press. Anyway.
Me (shouting now): There's a house...
Him: There's a house...
Him: Heheheheheh... Anyway, the gist of the dream is that there's this house and I can't remember where it is, and I know it's somewhere in Spain, I remember... I remember... (Finally resolving to come out with it.) I've lost the house. I can't remember where it is. My friend who's also been quite successful in life and got an awful lot of things has the same dream. There's a house and he can't remember where it is. The reason for this dream is simply that we have a lot of things happening in our lives and we can't remember where the fuck they are.
Me (incredulous): So, the point of the dream is that you own a house somewhere...
Him: ...and I can't remember where the fuck it is.