Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson (born 18 July 1950) is an English business magnate, best known for his Virgin Group of more than 400 companies.
His first business venture was a magazine called Student at the age of 16. In 1970, he set up an audio-record mail-order business. In 1972, he opened a chain of record stores, Virgin Records, later known as Virgin Megastores. Branson’s Virgin brand grew rapidly during the 1980s, as he set up Virgin Atlantic Airways and expanded the Virgin Records music label.
Branson is the 4th richest citizen of the United Kingdom, according to the Forbes 2011 list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of US$4.2 billion.
Branson was born in Blackheath, London, the son and eldest child of barrister Edward James Branson (10 March 1918 – 19 March 2011) and Eve Huntley Branson (née Flindt). His grandfather, the Right Honourable Sir George Arthur Harwin Branson, was a judge of the High Court of Justice and a Privy Councillor. Branson was educated at Scaitcliffe School (now Bishopsgate School) until the age of thirteen. He then attended Stowe School until the age of sixteen. Branson has dyslexia and had poor academic performance as a student, but later discovered his ability to connect with others.
Branson started his record business from the crypt of a church where he ran The Student. Branson advertised popular records in The Student Magazine and it was an over night success. Trading under the name “Virgin”, he sold records for considerably less than the “High Street” outlets, especially the chain W. H. Smith. Branson once said, “There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration.” The name “Virgin” was suggested by one of Branson’s early employees because they were all new at business. At the time, many products were sold under restrictive marketing agreements that limited discounting, despite efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to limit so-called resale price maintenance. In effect, Branson began the series of changes that led to large-scale discounting of recorded music.
Branson eventually started a record shop in Oxford Street in London. In 1971, Branson was questioned in connection with the selling of records in Virgin stores that had been declared export stock. The matter was never brought before a court and Branson agreed to repay any unpaid tax and a fine. Branson’s mother Eve re-mortgaged the family home to help pay the settlement.
Earning enough money from his record store, Branson in 1972 launched the record label Virgin Records with Nik Powell and bought a country estate, in which he installed a recording studio. He leased out studio time to fledgling artists, including multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield, whose debut album Tubular Bells (1973) was Virgin Records’ first release and a chart-topping best-seller.
Virgin signed such controversial bands as the Sex Pistols, which other companies were reluctant to sign. It also won praise for exposing the public to such obscure avant-garde music as Faust and Can. Virgin Records also introduced Culture Club to the music world. In the early 1980s, Virgin purchased the gay nightclub Heaven. In 1991, in a consortium with David Frost, Richard Branson had made the unsuccessful bid for three ITV franchisees under the CPV-TV name. The early 1980s also saw his only attempt as a producer—on the novelty record “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, by Singing Sheep in association with Doug McLean and Grace McDonald. The recording was a series of sheep baaing along to a drum machine produced track and even made the charts at number 42 in 1982.
In 1992, to keep his airline company afloat, Branson sold the Virgin label to EMI for £500 million. Branson says that he wept when the sale was completed since the record business had been the birth of the Virgin Empire. He later formed V2 Records to re-enter the music business.
Branson formed Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984, launched Virgin Mobile in 1999, Virgin Blue in Australia (now named Virgin Australia) in 2000. He was 9th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2006, worth just over £3 billion. Branson wrote in his autobiography of the decision to start an airline:
My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them…from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it.
In 1993, Branson took what many saw as being one of his riskier business exploits by entering into the railway business. Virgin Trains won the franchises for the former Intercity West Coast and Cross-Country sectors of British Rail.
A series of disputes in the early 1990s caused tension between Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, which viewed Virgin as an emerging competitor. Virgin subsequently accused British Airways of poaching its passengers, hacking into its computers and leaking stories to the press that portrayed Virgin in a negative light. After the so-called campaign of “dirty tricks”, British Airways settled the case, giving £500,000 to Branson and a further £110,000 to his airline and had to pay legal fees of up to £3 million. Branson divided his compensation (the so-called “BA bonus”) among his staff.
On 25 September 2004, Branson announced the signing of a deal under which a new space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, will license the technology behind Spaceship One—funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and designed by legendary American aeronautical engineer and visionary Burt Rutan—to take paying passengers into suborbital space. Virgin Galactic (wholly owned by Virgin Group) plans to make flights available to the public with tickets priced at US$200,000 using Scaled Composites White Knight Two.
Branson’s next venture with the Virgin group is Virgin Fuels, which is set to respond to global warming and exploit the recent spike in fuel costs by offering a revolutionary, cheaper fuel for automobiles and, in the near future, aircraft. Branson has stated that he was formerly a global warming sceptic and was influenced in his decision by a breakfast meeting with Al Gore.
Richard Branson made several world record-breaking attempts after 1985, when in the spirit of the Blue Riband he attempted the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing. His first attempt in the “Virgin Atlantic Challenger” led to the boat capsizing in British waters and a rescue by RAF helicopter, which received wide media coverage. Some newspapers called for Branson to reimburse the government for the rescue cost. In 1986, in his “Virgin Atlantic Challenger II”, with sailing expert Daniel McCarthy, he beat the record by two hours. A year later his hot air balloon “Virgin Atlantic Flyer” crossed the Atlantic.
In January 1991, Branson crossed the Pacific from Japan to Arctic Canada, 6,700 miles (10,800 km), in a balloon of 2,600,000 cubic feet (74,000 m3). This broke the record, with a speed of 245 miles per hour (394 km/h).
Between 1995 and 1998 Branson, Per Lindstrand and Steve Fossett made attempts to circumnavigate the globe by balloon. In late 1998 they made a record-breaking flight from Morocco to Hawaii but were unable to complete a global flight before Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in Breitling Orbiter 3 in March 1999.
In March 2004, Branson set a record by travelling from Dover to Calais in a Gibbs Aquada in 1 hour, 40 minutes and 6 seconds, the fastest crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle. The previous record of six hours was set by two Frenchmen. The cast of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, attempted to break this record in an amphibious vehicle which they had constructed and, while successfully crossing the channel, did not break Branson’s record.
In September 2008 Branson and his children made an unsuccessful attempt at an Eastbound record crossing of the Atlantic ocean under sail in the 99 feet (30 m) sloop Virgin Money. The boat, also known as Speedboat, is owned by NYYC member Alex Jackson, who was a co-skipper on this passage, with Branson and Mike Sanderson. After 2 days, 4 hours, winds of force 7 to 9 (strong gale), and seas of 40 feet (12 m), a ‘monster wave’ destroyed the spinnaker, washed a ten-man life raft overboard and severely ripped the mainsail. She eventually continued to St. George’s, Bermuda. In March 2010 Richard tried for the world record of putting a round of golf in the dark at the Black Light Mini Golf in The Docklands, Melbourne, Australia. He succeeded in getting 41 on the par 45 course.
In the late 1990s, Branson and musician Peter Gabriel discussed with Nelson Mandela their idea of a small, dedicated group of leaders, working objectively and without any vested personal interest to solve difficult global conflicts.
On 18 July 2007, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nelson Mandela announced the formation of a new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday. The founding members of this group are Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson, and Muhammad Yunus. The Elders is independently funded by a group of “Founders”, including Branson and Gabriel.
Desmond Tutu serves as the chair of The Elders—who will use their collective skills to catalyse peaceful resolutions to long-standing conflicts, articulate new approaches to global issues that are causing or may cause immense human suffering, and share wisdom by helping to connect voices all over the world. They will work together over the next several months to carefully consider which specific issues they will approach.
Branson’s other work in South Africa includes the Branson School of Entrepreneurship, set up in 2005 as a partnership between Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of Virgin, and entrepreneur Taddy Bletcher, the founder of CIDA City Campus, a university in Johannesburg. The school aims to improve economic growth in South Africa by supporting start-ups and micro-enterprises with skills, mentors, services, networks and finance arrangements. Fundraising activity to support the school is notably achieved by the Sunday Times Fast Track 100, sponsored by Virgin Group, at its yearly event, where places to join Richard Branson on trips to South Africa to provide coaching and mentoring to students are auctioned to attendees. In 2009, Jason Luckhurst and Boyd Kershaw of Practicus, Martin Ainscough of the Ainscough Group and Matthew Riley of Daisy Communications helped raise £150,000 through the auction.
In September 2007, Richard Branson chaired the jury of the first Picnic Green Challenge, a €500,000 award for best new green initiative, set up by the Dutch “Postcode Loterij” (postcode lottery) and the PICNIC Network of creative professionals. The first Green Challenge was won by Qurrent with the Qbox.
Branson was the first celebrity guest for the popular charity fund raisers, Reserve Dinners, raising over $75,000 in one evening towards his Virgin Unite charity.
In March 2008, Richard Branson hosted an environmental gathering at his private island, Necker Island, in the Caribbean with several prominent entrepreneurs, celebrities, and world leaders. They discussed global warming-related problems facing the world, hoping that this meeting will be a precursor to many more future discussions regarding similar problems. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, and Larry Page of Google were in attendance.
He stated in an interview with Piers Morgan that he and wife Joan had a daughter named Clare Sarah who died when she was just four days old in 1979. The couple wed—at their daughter Holly’s suggestion when she was eight years old—in 1989 at Necker Island, a 74-acre island in the British Virgin Islands that Branson owns. He also owns land on the Caribbean Islands of Antigua and Barbuda. Branson has been cited as a supporter of the football team Oxford United.
In 1998, Branson released his autobiography, titled Losing My Virginity, an international bestseller.
Branson was deeply saddened by the disappearance of fellow adventurer Steve Fossett in September 2007; and, the following month, he wrote an article for Time magazine, titled “My Friend, Steve Fossett”.
Branson has stated in a number of interviews that he derives much influence from non-fiction books. He most commonly names Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, explaining that Mandela is “one of the most inspiring men I have ever met and had the honour to call my friend.” Owing to his interest in humanitarian and ecological issues, Branson also lists Al Gore’s best-selling book, An Inconvenient Truth and The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock amongst his favourites. According to Branson’s own book, Screw It, Let’s do It. Lessons in Life, he is also a huge fan of works by Jung Chang.