Richard Branson deserves (some) respect

The Virgin empire may be a house of cards, as Tom Bower argues in Behind the Mask. But let's give Branson credit for his shrewdness and survival instincts

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

Branson: Behind the Mask Tom Bower

Faber, pp.384, £20, ISBN: 9780571297092

Tom Bower’s first biography of Sir Richard Branson, in 2000, was memorable for its hilarious account of the Virgin tycoon’s accident-prone ballooning exploits — and for its trenchant thesis that he had ‘toppled from his perch onto a slippery, downward path’, both in business and personal reputation.

But what Bower depicted as ‘the beginning of the end’ for the bearded self-publicist turned out to be rather the opposite. Since the turn of the millenium, Branson has blasted into the stratosphere; not literally, since his equally accident-prone venture in commercial space travel has so far failed to take off, but in the sense that he has attained ever more rarified levels of global celebrity. These days he’s right up with Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, fellow winners of an obscure German prize for humanitarian achievement — and of course he could be spotted grinning and looking casual at Mandela’s funeral. He’s the ultimate role model of concerned entrepreneurship, the eternal hipster who wants to save the ocean as well as busting the cartel of the corporate establishment. At 63, he’s the fun-loving billionaire who claims he’s ‘never been particularly interested in making money’.

His business model has evolved too, no longer a hands-on conglomerate but a smart branding organisation in which ‘partners’ provide most of the capital and take all of the pain. And what a formidable brand Virgin remains, attaching Branson’s own perpetual glamour to every product it touches.

All this is a great annoyance to Bower — the most tireless and unforgiving of British investigative authors, with the scalps of everyone from Tiny Rowland to Bernie Ecclestone already on his belt. He is especially enraged by Branson’s authorship last year of Screw Business as Usual, which sermonises about the importance of ‘doing business in an ethical and transparent manner’. That is not, in Bower’s opinion, a description of what Branson has been up to these past 45 years. If others have forgiven as youthful folly a brush with the law over a purchase-tax scam in his first music business, Bower has not: rather he thinks it set the pattern for a lifetime’s ‘profiteering’ and ‘sleight of hand’.

When Branson writes ‘Do good, don’t do harm, give back if you can’, Bower responds with a catalogue of Virgin meanness and misdemeanour. As for those naïve enough to joint-venture with this wily operator, Bower warns: ‘The Virgin model could crucify the unwary.’ As for transparency, the author needs only to list the 11 companies (the top three domiciled in the British Virgin Islands) through which the tycoon owns or owned his holding in Virgin Atlantic Airways — rendering its tax affairs, like those of most of his enterprises, completely opaque. And tax, or its legitimate avoidance, is presented as the reason why Branson now lives chiefly on his private Caribbean island of Necker, rather than an urge to commune with nature like ‘an ageing sun lizard’.

Bower is no great stylist: at one point, he reports, Branson’s ‘listless voice embroidered the venom’ against one of his foes. But you always know what he means, and the energy of the attack never flags. For those who may feel they don’t need another hefty volume of detail to reinforce the proposition that the man behind the Branson mask is a lot less attractive than the charismatic image, there is plenty of new material.

There is comedy, for example, in a visit with Jimmy Carter and Mia Farrow to Darfur which ends in disarray as Carter’s eccentric advice is shunned by local leaders while Branson commits himself to ‘a three-day fast in sympathy with the suffering of the Sudanese’. And you’re unlikely to want to book a ticket on Branson’s first rocket, even if he promises to host one of his famous in-flight parties, after reading Bower’s account of safety concerns during its development.

But you might reluctantly admire the ruthlessness and spin-mastery that Branson deployed to secure a renewal of the West Coast rail franchise for Virgin Trains after it had already been awarded to the rival FirstGroup. Likewise, never having been considered with much favour by the City, he succeeded in acquiring the remains of Northern Rock from the Treasury to turn Virgin Money into a retail bank. In both cases, he also secured hugely favourable terms from the taxpayer while risking relatively little capital of his own.

The Branson empire may be the teetering house of cards Bower has always said it is, and it may eventually be ‘a brand without a legacy’. But the tycoon is still a shrewd and driven deal-maker who has outlasted many competitors. He deserves just a little credit for that, even if Bower has comprehensively skewered his claim to be a global hero.

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  • Fergus Pickering

    Branson is an interesting man. Bower is a boring, vindictive scribbler.

  • FF42

    Boring mobile phones and broadband are the real moneyspinners for Virgin. The Bank may turn out nicely as well. The other companies that get all the attention are Richard Branson’s hobbies really.

  • …and for its trenchant thesis that he had ‘toppled from his perch onto a slippery, downward path’, both in business and personal reputation.

    Based on my experience of dealings with Virgin, he’s spot on. Glad to hear others have picked up on it.

  • Mike

    Done right, Bransons banking venture could turn out very well for all except the existing players. Considering the disgust held by most towards the financial pimps in banking today, customers are looking for a new brand that isn’t tainted with PPI fraud, rate rigging, money laundering or over charging on current accounts. That pretty much eliminates ALL of the existing high street banks whether owned by the tax payer or not. His Virgin brand isn’t sullied in the market place even if his competitors can’t stand him and as that saying goes, the enemy of my enemy could be my friend.

    Just offer fair and transparent products with no scams or hidden caveats and he’ll leap frog most in the high street whilst they’re still trying to pay back their previous scams and nefarious frauds. The existing cartel of banking whores have so much baggage to shed with more surfacing every day that I doubt they’ll be free from the results of criminal behavior for another 10 years.

    That’s more than enough time to create a simple but viable savings and loan operation whilst the usual suspects in banking see their remaining reserves disappear to a Virgin brand. We could very well see one or more go bust when people pull their savings out.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Richard Branson got my vote when he said, “That’s it, I’m out of here. This country really, really sucks.”
    Jack, Kathmandu

  • OK fine, but why does he wear those ghastly jeans? I hate jeans. Yet one more aspect of our current society that I cannot fathom. They’re not comfortable. They’re not flattering. They’re not even cheap. (I want to say: they make people look like tramps.) Yet people consider them de rigueur. I stopped wearing them when I was barely out of my teens. The AOL ad with it’s jean-pocket piccie (eh?) was obviously not designed for aesthetes like me. —->

    Question: Why, apart from playing on the West’s obsession with sex, was the business called ‘Virgin’? It’s rather a weird name for a business, ain’t it? Surely there are lots of other two-syllable memorable names that would have served as well? Why can’t we ever leave sex out of it? (And never mind about the more innocent uses of ‘virgin’: that’s not what most of us would be thinking.)

  • saffrin

    Branson likes to see himself as one of the boys. I’ve met him a couple of times and see him for what he is, a complete as*ole.