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Robert Kent

a business

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 cheerful.

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. Branson said, ‘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 future business.

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, over £50,000.

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 personal adventures. 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 them.’

Source: English Digest


Read the article again and find the answers to the following questions. Then check your answers here.

1. What is the name of the huge business founded by Richard Branson?

2. What was the name of the magazine that Branson started when he was at

3. Which famous politician replied to one of Branson's letters asking for his

4. Where did Branson open his first large record store?

5. Which album released by Virgin Records became an all time best seller?

6. How did Branson attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1987?

7. How did Branson nearly lose his life?

8. Who beat Branson in the competition to run the UK National Lottery?

9. How did Branson publicise his autobiography?