When Richard Branson left
school at the age of seventeen, his headmaster made a
prediction: "Branson will either go to prison or become a
millionaire". He avoided going to prison, and became one of
the most popular and successful entrepreneurs in Britain.
Every year teenagers in Britain vote Branson the businessman
they most admire.
Branson founded the huge Virgin group that includes airlines,
music, soft drinks, pensions, clothing, cosmetics, cinemas
and railways. In the 1990s when politicians decided to have
a Mayor of London again, Branson was top of the opinion
polls without ever saying he was interested in standing.
Richard Branson was born
on 18 July 1950. His father was a barrister, his mother
owned an embroidery business. Richard's mother, Eve, told
him that shyness was a weakness. When he was just four years
old she left him half a mile from his grandparents' house
and told the small boy to walk there alone. Later that night
he was found a mile in the wrong direction, unharmed but
Educated at a private school, Branson and a friend, Jonathan
Holland-Gems, came up with the idea of a magazine for their
fellow students, called ‘Student’. They thought of it as a
way to publish their views against the school's rules.
‘I never intended to become an entrepreneur. I was 15,
didn't like the way I was being taught, wanted to get out of
school and put the world right, so I started the magazine.’
Branson put all his energy into the magazine, and ignored
his studies. As soon as he could he left school, and set up
business in the basement of Holland-Gems’ family home.
Branson had written to world leaders, actors, poets and
singers for their views. He even had a letter from Lyndon
Johnson the US president. Branson had arranged his own wave
of publicity, a talent that was to stay with him in all his
For a couple of years ‘Student’ went well, then the magazine
hit financial problems. Branson decided to close it and
follow a new idea he had. He thought he could compete
against big record shops by selling cheap imported records
by post. ‘Virgin mail order’ was an immediate success.
Branson nearly made both his headmaster's predictions come
true when he tried to avoid customs tax. He was arrested and
only avoided prison by paying all the tax he had avoided,
When his mail order business lost sales because of a post
office strike, Branson reacted by opening a record store on
London's busy Oxford Street. The store was an extraordinary
success. Within a year there were 14 Virgin record stores in
Britain, making it one of the largest chain stores in the
country at the time.
In 1973, Branson set up his next venture, Virgin Records, to
make records. They made an album by a young unknown artist
who had been rejected by every other record company. The
artist was Mike Oldfield, the album was Tubular Bells, and
it became one of the all time best sellers.
A businessman, Randolph Fields, approached Branson in 1985
with the idea of starting a small airline. Virgin Atlantic
was launched, with Fields as chairman, with unusual speed.
Branson was excited by the challenge. However within a few
years Fields took Branson to court saying that Branson was
leaving him out of the important decisions. Branson paid
Fields to leave, and took over control of the airline.
Branson's buccaneering spirit in business was matched by his
A team was attempting to cross the Atlantic by speedboat.
They asked Branson if he would sponsor them. Branson rose to
the challenge and saw a perfect opportunity to get a lot of
media attention. Branson was in all the newspapers when
Virgin Atlantic Challenger tried to cross the Atlantic on 12
August 1985. The attempt failed, but the media were now
fascinated by him.
In 1987 he attempted another Atlantic crossing, this time by
balloon. With Per Lindstrand as pilot, the pair nearly died
when they were forced to make an emergency landing in the
sea. This did not stop Branson and Lindstrand from several
more balloon record attempts. In 1991 they flew 6,700 miles
across the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the 1990s, the two
made several attempts for a balloon flight record around the
world, but were not successful. During this time Branson
risked death again when he lost his parachute during a jump.
His instructors managed to rescue him.
While Branson's buccaneering spirit won
sympathy with the general public, Branson was careful to
project his image in business as ‘a safe pair of hands’, as
he increased the number of businesses in the Virgin Group.
His reputation came under attack in 1991 in a ‘smear
campaign’ by his business rivals, British Airways. Branson
took BA to court and won £500,000 and an apology. In a
brilliant piece of Branson PR, he divided the money equally
among his staff.
Branson found himself in court again in 1998 after he lost
the competition to run the UK National Lottery. Branson
accused the chief executive of the rival bidders of trying
to bribe him to stay out of the bidding. Branson won, and
gave the £100,000 award to charity.
Branson continues to be a master of self-publicity, even
posing semi-naked to advertise his autobiography. As he
enters his 50s, he seems to have as much energy and
enthusiasm as ever. He sums up his success to the goals he
sets himself: ‘My interests in life come from setting myself
huge and unachievable challenges – and then rising above