Richard Branson Biography: Success Story of Virgin Group Founder

Richard Branson Biography

Richard Branson

In this success story, we are going to share Sir Richard Branson biography, an English entrepreneur, investor and the founder of Virgin Group, which includes more than 400 companies in 30 countries from the entirely different industries.

Nobody knows the exact number of businesses managed by Virgin Group. Some say that even Richard Branson is not able to answer how many business ideas are implemented under the wing of his multi-brand. However, the charm of its business is not in the quantities of the companies but in the quality of services provided.

Richard Branson is an extraordinary personality, mainly known to the general public for his non-standard actions, including the creation of his reality show, The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best, and numerous attempts to break world speed records, including the fastest ever Atlantic Ocean crossing. A hippie-billionaire, a master of shocking, a nail in the boot of big business, an iron fist in a velvet glove, Richard “The Robber” Branson, knighted by the Prince of Wales with the Knight Bachelor title for his “services to entrepreneurship” – it is all about Sir Richard Branson.

The distinctive personality traits of Richard Branson are self-confidence, high level of humility, trustworthiness, authenticity, enthusiasm, optimism, and warmth.

Family Background

Richard’s ancestors had aristocratic roots. His grandfather, the Right Honourable Sir George Arthur Harwin Branson (July 11, 1871 – April 23, 1951), was a judge of the High Court of Justice and a Privy Councillor. Only Richard’s father could not support the family tradition. Due to some health reasons, he failed entrance exams at Eton College for several times. Thus, Edward Branson never entered the advocacy community.

Edward James Branson

In school, Edward James Branson (1918–2011) developed a passion for natural history and swimming, breaking most of the school’s records. Edward Branson wanted to become an archeologist, and his father was not delighted with this idea, insisting that he take a career in Law. Edward would later recall a similar conversation with his son Richard, who Edward felt needed a qualification, and convinced him to qualify as a barrister. Edward felt terrible because he’d realized that he’d done the same discouraging thing as his father, and promptly told Richard to forget all about it.

Edward Branson met his future wife Eve Branson at a drinks party in 1948, a couple of years since he returned to England after the war. Edward proposed to Eve while she was riding pillion on his motorcycle and the two got married in 1949.

Eve Branson

Eve Branson (née Flindt; born July 12, 1924) has always been a bright woman, who adored adventures. When she was young, she had always been dreaming of working in the aviation industry. However, the way to the sky for women was closed at that time. Dressing as a man, she managed to become a pilot. A bit later she became a flight attendant on international routes. However, she did not speak foreign languages and did not have a medical education.

Her career promotion was paused after the marriage with Edward Branson. As Edward could not become an advocate, the family felt an urgent need of money. Eve had to work hard always thinking of new profitable businesses. She was selling wooden tissue boxes and wastepaper bins in national stores, was painting the packing boxes for sale, and at the same time was looking after her four children. Richard Branson has two younger sisters, Lindi and Vanessa, and his brother, Ted.

Early Childhood

Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson was born on July 18, 1950, in Surrey, England. The family did not have a steady income at the time as his father Edward had failed his bar exams and did not have a qualification to work. The three could often be seen riding a motorcycle with Richard in the sidecar and Eve riding pillion, reciting legal cases into Edward’s ear.

Richard’s sister Lindi was born in 1953. By this time, Richard’s father had finally qualified as a barista while Eve assisted with the income from her self-made embroidered cushions and trinkets she sold at Harrods.

An enormous merit in Richard’s formation as a person belongs to his mother, Eve Branson. Evette felt that something was going wrong since Richard’s birth: from the early years his motor coordination was strongly impaired, and it was often impossible actually to understand what he was saying – sometimes the letters and numbers were meaningless for him. Later, doctors diagnosed Richard Branson with myopia and dyslexia. Usually, people who suffer from dyslexia cannot learn to read and write during all their life, but Evette did not give up and prudently cared about Richard’s adoption to the real life.

Eve periodically arranged challenges for Richard: he had to go I know not whither and fetch I know not what. Usually, he succeeded. When Branson was only four years old, she dropped him off the car a few miles away from home and told him to look for his dad across the fields. A little boy found him in the same evening.

I've been very lucky. I come from a very close family. – Richard Branson Click To Tweet

When Richard was eleven, she woke him up an early January morning, gave him a bicycle, put an apple and a few sandwiches in a bag and sent him to relatives who lived in a town fifty miles away from Richard’s home. Richard had to get some water by himself along the way. He came back proud and tired; he was very pleased about that and Eve immediately sent him on an errand.

They never had a TV set nor listened to the radio, but Branson recalled his childhood fun and happy. His parents loved each other and treated Ricky and his two sisters as equals. Eve Branson was sure that one day her son would become prime minister, and was doing everything for that he would not blunder when it is time to ascend to the top. She had no doubt that her son was up for everything.

In his early childhood, Richard Branson met Nik Powell, who became his best friend for life. Their friendship was inseparable, and it had elements of competition as they enjoyed making challenges for each other. When they were eight, they were separated. Richard was sent to Scaitcliffe School, a boarding preparatory school in Berkshire. Later, Nik Powell would become one of the early pioneers of Virgin Group. For Richard Branson, who suffered from dyslexia, education turned into torture. He was unable to read, write or spell well and was often beaten for poor behavior.

Elementary and Middle School

Richard’s father went to boarding school and his father before him, so it was a traditional practice for the family. Richard hated it because he always got into trouble and struggled in class. Aged 8, he still could not read and could not make out the letters and numbers on the blackboard. Richard had dyslexia. Back then, no one knew or cared about it which meant that the rest of the class and the teachers just thought he was lazy.

To contrast his poor academic performance, Richard proved to be remarkably good at sports. He notes that if you were good at sports at an English school, you were the hero, and the schoolmasters didn’t care if you failed all of your exams. Richard became the captain of the football, rugby, and cricket teams. He won every race and unintentionally set a new record for the long jump after deciding just to give it a try. The fun lasted until the first injury that Richard received playing football. The doctor told him that he could not play sports for a very long time, and he was back in the classroom hitting rock bottom and being the worst on every subject.

Richard went to another school on the Sussex coast called Cliff View House where he was to prepare for the Common Entrance exam. This school had no sports. It was the place where you would get beat for not remembering a math formula. Dyslexia was no longer an excuse, as they got beat for nearly anything. Dirty shoes? Beat. Are you walking a little faster than you should be? Beat. Not making your beds properly? Talking when you should be quiet? Beat, beat, beat.

Perhaps the only pleasant memory from that school was the headmaster’s lovely daughter Charlotte. She liked Richard, and the two had a routine of nightly visits until Richard got busted by one of his teachers. The headmaster summoned him to his study and asked what he was doing at his house. Richard replied with: “I was on my way back from your daughter’s room, sir.” The headmaster then expelled him from school.

That very evening, to escape the anger of his parents, Richard wrote a pretend suicide note. He put it in an envelope and gave it to a boy, instructing him not to open it until the next day, knowing that he definitely would. As he slowly made his way through the school grounds towards the cliffs, he saw a crowd of teachers and students running after him. They dragged him back from the cliff and annulled the expulsion. Richard’s parents were surprisingly calm about the case. His dad was even impressed that Charlotte, the headmaster’s daughter, was very pretty.

High School

After Cliff View House beat Richard into shape, he moved to Stowe School in 1963. It was a big public school in Buckinghamshire with over 800 boys. Richard’s struggle with the academic system continued at Stowe School. His knee injury would not allow him to sprint and participate in sports, and he was just a bad in class as he was at the previous schools. The library was his sanctuary, where he spent his afternoons writing a novel about a hopeless schoolboy expertly seduced by a young and lascivious school matron.

The other frequenter at the library was the sophisticated and widely read Jonathan Holland-Gems. Jonathan helped Richard develop a passion for journalism and newspapers. Richard thought that he even might like to become a journalist. Soon, he took part in a school essay competition and won.

First Try at Business

When Richard was eleven, he decided to start his own business. Together with his childhood friend, Nik Powell, they started breeding budgerigars venture. That was a true bonanza. Richard’s father built an aviary for them, and the budgerigars began multiplying quicker than the young entrepreneurs could sell them. By the end of school holidays, Richard and Nik managed to sell many birds to the local children. Soon, they went back off to boarding school, and Richard’s parents had to take care of them. Later his mother wrote him a letter informing that rats had eaten some birds. As for the rest, she just opened a cage and let them go, because budgerigars were too loud. Richard was not disappointed, on the contrary, he was jubilant as it was his truly professional job.

Business opportunities are like buses, there's always another one coming. – Richard Branson Click To Tweet

Branson’s decided to try his hand at Christmas tree venture. When Richard and Nik were at home during the Easter holidays, they furrowed the ground, planted the 400 seeds and were looking forward to selling them on Christmas Eve. They expected the trees to have grown to six feet by the Christmas after next, and they would be able to sell them for £2 each making £800 in total. However, rabbits ate all the tree seedlings. They took revenge and shot down many rabbits by selling them to the local butcher for a shilling each. However, they did not make £800 as they had initially planned.

The Student Magazine

Jonathan Holland-Gems and Richard were put off by the amounts of pointless rules and regulations at Stowe School. There were compulsory Sunday church attendances, there was the Combined Cadet Force where boys dressed up as soldiers and marched around the school with rifles, and there was the ancient practice of “fagging” which involved older students bullying young freshmen into doing various dirty chores for them. In 1966, the pair came up with several ideas on how to improve the school.

Stowe School encouraged students to participate in running the school. They began writing to the headmaster and speaking out against the mandatory attendance of sports events, and trying to reorganize the system of school meals. The school director suggested that they publish their opinions in The Stoic, the school magazine. Richard and Johnny believed that the ideas were too revolutionary and they needed to set up an alternative magazine if they were to campaign against fagging, compulsory church and sports games, corporal punishment, and the study of Latin.

They settled on the name “Student and promptly got to work on writing up all the possible contributors and advertisers. Richard had set up an office in his school study and made all the telephone calls from a call box. He discovered that if he called the operator and told her that the machine took his money without making the call, he would get free calls. Another thing that helped was that the operator sounded like his secretary when she called people up saying “I have Mr. Branson for you.

High School Dropout

Richard was performing worse in school and eventually had to drop his science and Latin studies. He told his childhood friend Nik Powell about Student, and he was equally excited and ready to help. Richard focused on sending out hundreds of letters and placing calls to find advertisers willing to commit to Student. He spent little time with his family, writing them a letter of apology explaining his ambitions with the magazine. His mother was very supportive, helped him write articles, track down the right people, and gave him pocket money. The commitment paid off when they received the first hard copy of Student and a £250 cheque for advertising. They even got Gerald Scarfe, an English cartoonist famous for his work with the Sunday Times, The New Yorker, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, to draw them a cartoon and be interviewed.

Richard dropped every subject at school except for ancient history, devoting all of his time to Student magazine. By this time, Robert and Johnny were frequently taking the train to London and interviewing people. Richard left Stowe School when he was almost seventeen, after cheating on the final history test. The headmaster’s parting words were “Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.” He later wrote Richard a letter of congratulations upon the release of the first issue of Student in January 1968.

The Student after Dropping Out

The Student magazine was a means of providing an alternative to the publications and school magazines of the time, which Richard considered uninspiring and stale. In his own words, “There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration.”

The Student magazine became a way to give young people a voice and challenge the perceptions of youth culture. Readers were intellectually absorbed into a variety of topics including music, pop culture, the Vietnam and Biafra wars, and other various issues still unaddressed and relevant today. As written in the first editorial dated to 1968: “We want STUDENT to develop as a platform for all shades of opinion, all beliefs, and ideas. In the last few years, there has been more widespread interest in the student age group than ever before. But this interest has been confined to such mundane topics as clothes, morals, music, and hair… We plan to be a vehicle for intelligent comment and protest.”

Peter Blake Interview

The magazine expanded with several prominent people giving interviews. Peter Blake, the famous designer of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album cover drew a picture for the first edition and gave an eye-catching interview beginning with: “A very pretty girl with no clothes on is a marvelous subject and one I’m particularly interested in. It is one of those things, along with perspective and anatomy, which teaches you how to draw.” Soon after, prominent figures like Mick Jagger and John Lennon gave interviews to Student.

John Lennon Interview

The Lennon interview was supposed to be their biggest one. There were plans to print 100,000 copies of the magazine, being their largest print to run. John Lennon (October 09, 1940 – December 08, 1980) even agreed to provide the magazine with an original unreleased recording of a song that they wanted to distribute with the print.

Three weeks after the interview, Student magazine had not yet heard from Lennon, and there was no record anywhere in sight. The plans for this particular issue put Student on the brink of bankruptcy. Richard had to live up to his promises. In desperation, he chose to contact a lawyer who wrote to Derek, the press officer of The Beatles threatening to sue their company (Apple) for breach of promise. It wasn’t a good time to pressure the Lennons with lawsuits as John had his troubles after being busted for possession of cannabis, and Yoko had recently lost an unborn baby.

Soon after the call, Richard was invited to come around to their studio to listen to the recording they’d provided. Richard, the lawyer, Derek, John, and Yoko all sat around in the basement studio listening to the recording. The only sound heard was the hiss of the tape and a steady metronomic beat of a human heart. Yoko burst into tears. “It’s the heartbeat of our baby,said John. “The baby died. That’s the silence of our dead baby.” The recording was never released because Richard deemed it too personal to share with the public.

The Birth of Virgin Business

The Student magazine began expanding after the Lennon interview, attracting the attention of big media outlets. At the same time, it was going downhill. More and more people became involved in Student and the basement where they ran it, started looking more like a squat. Nobody was making money out of it. To make matters worse, Richard’s partner Johnny had to leave to finish his studies, leaving Student vulnerable to failure.

Student Advisory Centre

Richard thought about the ways he could expand the magazine and set up the Student Advisory Centre to speak to students who had personal problems that they were too shy to admit. People called and talked about unwanted pregnancies, being gay, running away from home, and suicidal tendencies. Richard created a list of medical professionals to whom he would refer these troubled people.

They ran Student and the Student Advisory Centre out of the crypt of a church on 44 Albion Street. One thing that never changed was the fact that they were broke. Richard stated that no one should start a business if the primary goal is to make money, but at this point, he was interested in making money to keep Student afloat.

Virgin Mail Order

Richard Branson noticed one recurring detail that was a huge part of every Student gathering – music. The revolutionary dreams of young generations changing the world, the politics, the anarchy, all of it fascinated him. What he also noticed is that if people were to choose between buying the new Bob Dylan record or buying food, they would go for Dylan.

Richard thought of a way he could make records more affordable. There was a restrictive marketing agreement that limited discounting. This agreement between manufacturers and wholesalers or retailers mainly constituted that products could not sell below a specified price. “High Street” outlets had to sell higher priced records if there was any hope of making a profit, which must have been inspiringly frustrating for Richard.

Richard Branson thought about selling cheap mail-order records through the magazine. To do so, they needed a new name that would appeal to a broader audience, not only students. “Slipped Disc” was one of the favorites until one of the girls suggested “Virgin,” as they were all complete virgins at business. They decided to keep it.

Starting your own business isn't just a job - it's a way of life. – Richard Branson Click To Tweet

The idea was in bloom. Richard tried selling Student to focus more on the Virgin Mail Order but to no success. The only company that wanted to buy it were put off by Richards seemingly utopian plans to set up a student bank, open some student nightclubs and perhaps even create a student airline. Student magazine died quietly in 1970, as the Virgin Mail Order took its place.

There was an upside to buying records from Virgin. Other media outlets sold their records for 39 shillings, and Virgin sold them for 35 shillings. Customers were immediately attracted, and mail started filling sacks. Richard settled his disputes with Nik Powell, offering him 40 percent of Virgin Mail Order Records, to which he immediately agreed.

Virgin Records Shop

In January 1971, Post Office workers went on strike causing the Virgin mail-order business to almost collapse. Richard and Nik decided to open a physical shop to save the company. The Virgin Records store was to be like an extension of  Student. They conceived it as a place where people could socialize and listen to records together, get absorbed into the music they were going to buy.

Before settling on a location for the store, they spent a morning counting people walking up and down Oxford street in comparison to Kensington High Street. They settled on Oxford street, which had a shoe shop with an empty first floor.

When Mr. Alachouzos, the owner of the shoe shop, heard that they wanted to set up a record shop, his first reaction was: “You’ll never pay the rent.” However, they convinced him by saying that their record store would attract lots of people past his window and they would buy his shoes. Mr. Alachouzos allowed them to occupy the space without paying rent until someone who wanted to buy it came along. It was just a waste of space after all.

After making the deal, they promptly outfitted the place, setting up shelves, cushions on the floor, carrying old sofas up to the stairs and spawning a cash register. Virgin Records was now ready for business.

Richard and Nik spent a Sunday handing out leaflets on Oxford street inviting people to buy their cut-price records. On Monday, there was a hundred meter queue outside the shop. In the evening, Richard took the large bag of money to the bank. “How’s business?” Richard asked Mr. Alachouzos who was lingering outside the store. “Fine,” he said. “Couldn’t be better.”

The Virgin store grew steadily. Richard and Nick created a welcome atmosphere at the shop, offering the customers headphones and copies of the NME and Melody Maker, even free coffee. Word spread, and customers returned. The store began developing a loyal customer base, as people felt that buying records at Virgin was in a way more authentic than going to a big commercial store.

The Manor Studio

Richard’s motivation behind creating a recording studio was the same as his motivation for Student and Virgin. He knew that making records at a city studio in 1971 had many disadvantages. Conditions at city studios were too formal and unsuitable for rock’n’roll bands. The schedule was very tight, and sessions typically lasted three hours. Bands often had to record right after having breakfast, and Richard thought the idea of The Rolling Stones just finishing up their cornflakes before going in to record ‘Brown Sugar’ was ridiculous.

Richard envisioned recording albums in the countryside, stressing the importance of creating a comfortable creative environment for artists. If rock’n’roll bands preferred sleeping throughout the day and recording at night, then that’s the way it should be. After taking a large loan from the bank, and with the help of his family’s savings, Richard bought an old Manor house some five miles north of Oxford.

Tubular Bells

The Manor Studio was the first residential recording studio in Britain, moving album-making out of the populous cities and placing it in the countryside. Virgin welcomed developing artists to their studio as well as established bands. Richard initially had no plans to go into the record business, but all of that changed when Mike Oldfield showed him a demo tape of his music. Richard loved the tape and took it to several records labels none of whom would release it, so he formed Virgin Records.

The 1973 album by then-unknown teenage multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield entitled Tubular Bells (1973) sold millions. Oldfield helped secure the Manor’s place in rock history when Tubular Bells became a best-selling and chart-topping album.

A Kind Of Nirvana

Among the artists who recorded there in the early 1970s were Gong, Vivian Stanshall, and John Cale – previously a member of the iconic alternative music pioneers The Velvet Underground. Later Manor Studio alumni included Rush, XTC, Black Sabbath, and Radiohead with their breakthrough 1995 album The Bends.

Mike Oldfield described the studio sessions and the countryside location a kind of nirvana: “It was new, exciting. There was nothing that professional, nothing successful, at that time. Just a great feeling that something important was starting to take root.” One day Branson opened the door to find a man with a gun looking for Keith Richards who had apparently gone off with his wife. As he argued that neither of them was at the studio, he saw a naked Keith Richards and the man’s naked wife running across the lawn in the background. The ‘nirvana’ aspect of the Manor seemed incorruptible, yet there was so much one could do with the subversive nature of rock’n’roll-ers.

Settling Debts & Learning Lessons

The year of 1971 was a turbulent one for the Virgin Mail Order, which now ran out of a warehouse instead of a church crypt, began losing more money than they were making. Many people bought from Virgin because they offered discounts on records. At the same time, they were not keeping up with with the delivery. Sometimes customers pretended that they had not received the delivery, and Virgin kept sending them new copies. They were losing money, and before long, they were 15,000 pounds overdrawn.

In the spring of 1971, Richard received a large order for records from Belgium. He bought those records for export from the record companies without paying them the purchase tax. Countries like the UK and France charged purchase tax for records sold on their soil while Belgium did not charge purchase tax. Hence he did not have to pay it. Richard Branson loaded those records into the back of his van and was on the way to Belgium when the French stopped him at their border. The authorities requested some document that Richard did not have, and he was forced to go back to England with the records still in his van.

On the way to London, Richard had a realization that he was carrying a van loaded with records which had been “exported.” He paid no purchase tax on them, and if he sold them by mail or at the Virgin shop, he could make about 5,000 pounds more profit than he usually made. He knew it was a criminal plan, but the 15,000-pound debt was breathing down his neck.

After the fourth trip back and 12,000 pounds accumulated, the telephone rang. An anonymous caller warned Richard that someone noticed his trips and that he was about to get raided by the Customs and Excise office. The catch was that every record that he bought from EMI for Belgium had a fluorescent ‘E’ stamp on the vinyl, revealable by an ultraviolet sun lamp. The caller revealed that he was helping Richard because he once stayed up all night talking to the caller’s suicidal friend who once rang up the Student Advisory Centre. Richard suspected that the caller could have been a customs officer.

Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again. – Richard Branson Click To Tweet

Although Richard and co-attempted to conceal the ‘E’-stamped records, they were busted by Customs and Excise. Richard took the ‘E’-stamped records to his other shops in attempts to conceal them. Little did he know that they inspected not only their warehouse stock but also the records in their Oxford Street and Liverpool store where there ‘E’-stamped records were.

Richard was arrested and taken down to Dover to make a statement. They charged him under Section 301 of the Customs and Excise act 1952. The matter was never brought to court as he agreed to pay 15,000 pounds as an immediate payment with an additional 45,000 pounds in installments over the next three years. Richard’s mother Eve re-mortgaged the family home to help pay the settlement. The total was three times the illegal profit which Virgin made by avoiding purchase tax.

‘Never Mind the Bollocks’

Another one of Richard’s run-ins with the cops was when he was arrested and taken to court for proudly advertising the Sex Pistols album on his record shop window. Apparently, the authorities were displeased with the slogan Never Mind the Bollocks deeming it too offensive, as the word ‘bollocks’ was a derivative of ‘testicles.’

The case did not go far in court after a linguistics expert proved that the word bollocks was an 18th-century nickname for priests. The Sex Pistols signed with Virgin on May 18, 1977, because they did not have much of a choice as no major record label wanted them anywhere near their doors. Their single God Save the Queen (1977) was rush-released two weeks later, promptly followed by their iconic debut (and only) album Never Mind the Bollocks, released on October 28, 1977.

The Bollocks dilemma came up again in 2015 when Richard Branson’s bank Virgin Money issued a series of credit cards with the classic slogan on them. As they booked advertising slots for the new credit cards, they noted that several newspapers were not pleased with the word ‘bollocks,’ demanding censored versions of the ads. It’s incredible how the Sex Pistols have the power to provoke and stir chaos nearly 40 years on. On the other hand, who would have guessed that the guy who sold you the Sex Pistols would someday own a bank?

Virgin Records

Virgin Records eventually became the world’s largest independent record label. They worked with avant-garde artists such as Faust and Can, introduced the androgynous Culture Club to the world, bought a gay nightclub and saw Richard Branson’s strange attempt at musical production. The 1982 record “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” by Singing Sheep was a series of sheep baa-ing to a drum machine. Strangely enough, the track baa-ed its way to number 42 in the UK charts of that year.

Virgin Records also signed artists like Peter Gabriel, Steve Winwood, and notably the Rolling Stones in 1992. Branson said that “The most memorable part of signing the Rolling Stones was the hangover I had the day after.” It was a blockbuster contract worth an estimated $44 million.

The Virgin Empire & Virgin Atlantic

Branson’s interest was not limited to the music business. By 1983 his empire of over 50 companies generated combined sales of more than $17 million. From filmmaking to air conditioner cleaning, to his 1984 entry into the airline business which would prove to be one of his biggest life challenges. His motive for venturing into multiple markets shows how that challenges himself to do something better than other people. In his own words“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.”

Richard’s interest in the airline industry started during a trip to Puerto Rico with his wife, Joan. Their flight got canceled, and they were amongst the hundreds of passengers stranded at a small island airport. Branson tracked down a chartered plane and divided the cost of the plane by the number of seats, giving stranded passengers an opportunity to reach Puerto Rico for $39. A few months later, a colleague approached him and offered him the idea of starting a transatlantic airline company. The stakes were high. In other words – Screw it, let’s do it!

There was one thing standing between Richard Branson and his mission for Virgin Atlantic – and it was British Airways (BA). Still, Richard was optimistic. He believed that major airlines, especially British Airways, no longer satisfied the needs of their customers. Richard felt that if he started an airline, flying would be an enjoyable and affordable experience and that he could beat British Airways at their own game.

Initially, Virgin Atlantic was a tremendous success. The airline always went the extra mile to not only fulfill the needs of the customers, but to also introduce lavish features such as hydrotherapy baths, in-flight messages, backseat video screens in every class, and free ice cream during movies.

The kick-start of Virgin Atlantic managed to stir up some ruckus at British Airways. The 1990s proved to be a turbulent time for worldwide economies, and British Airways could not afford to lose to their competition. In 1991, British Airways launched a secret campaign in attempts to put Branson out of business.

British Airways’ series of stunts soon became known as the ‘dirty tricks’ campaign. Virgin accused them of stealing its passengers and hacking its computers to leak stories that gave Virgin Atlantic a bad reputation. The ‘dirty tricks’ air war was won by Branson eventually, with British Airways settling the case and giving £500,000 to Branson, £110,000 to his airline, and paying legal fees of up to £3 million. The compensation, which Branson called ‘the BA bonus,’ was distributed amongst the Virgin Atlantic staff.

It was not all roses and sunshine. In 1992, Virgin Atlantic’s financial situation was so tragic that Richard Branson was convinced to sell his Virgin Records to Thorn-EMI to keep his airline flying. The sale was just below the $1 billion mark, and Branson managed to pay off the bank now owning Virgin Atlantic wholly. Branson won the battle, but lost his beloved music company and felt crushed. He vowed that he would never be exploited by vile bank lenders again.

Material things are delightful, but they're not important. – Richard Branson Click To Tweet

In July 2017, Branson announced that he is ceding control of Virgin Atlantic after a 33-year run. Air France-KLM and Delta would be taking up most of the stake in Virgin Atlantic, leaving Virgin Group with 20 percent. Virgin Atlantic has enjoyed lots of success due to the marketing genius of Branson. Virgin Atlantic’s marketing was defined by the Branson’s cheeky sense of humor and his underdog approach, while British Airways was the company that spent millions on fancy looking advertisements. Their relationship can be summed up with the 2000 London Eye stunt when British Airways was sponsoring the London Eye, and there was a technical issue due to which they could not erect the giant wheel. Luckily Branson had an airship company, which scrambled an airship together and sent it off towards London. The airship flew over the wheel decorated with the message: ‘BA can’t get it up.’ Virgin Airlines got more publicity than BA that year.

Branded Venture Capital

Branson is also known for having developed a remarkable business strategy called ‘branded venture capital.’ With this strategy, Branson would launch a massive amount of companies with minimal investment. The key lies in licensing the Virgin name. Branson would supply the name in exchange for controlling interest – giving his partners the majority of the stock. He would manage the business while his wealthy allies were the ones putting up most of the cash. As a result of this, Branson now owns or holds interest in 200 or more different companies including Virgin Radio, Virgin Studios, Virgin Clubs, Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Net, V2, and Virgin Interactive Entertainment just to name a few.

The Virgin empire is not about to stop expanding. In a 1997 interview with Forbes, Branson elaborates on his plans to build a shuttle service into space. In his own words: It’s virgin territory.” Virgin Galactic aims to be the world’s first commercial spaceline company. Going on a journey into suborbital space will be as easy as taking a plane from London to New York.

Breaking Records 

In 1987, Richard Branson set a record for the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon. In 1991, Branson even crossed the Pacific Ocean and made attempts with several colleagues to circumnavigate the entire globe by balloon. As of 2014, he holds the records for the oldest person to cross the English Channel by kiteboard, most followers on LinkedIn, and richest reality TV presenter with an estimated worth of £3 billion.

The 400+ companies under the Virgin name, several new entries in the Guinness Book of World Records made Branson a recurring character in various media. He is often portrayed as a figure of satire due to his high public profile. Yet, Branson isn’t a supervillain from Zenith or a crazy ballooning megalomaniac from the Simpsons. He is a daring genius and rebel at business, an enthusiastic and optimistic visionary, and an extraordinary leader, all while being a genuinely nice guy.

Richard Branson’s alternative way of thinking made him stand out in the world of business. He always challenged himself to go a step further believing that he can not only compete with large enterprises but that he could do their job better. Student magazine confronted the stale publications of the time, siding with the counterculture and inviting students, artists, and intellectuals to participate and address important issues in the world. Virgin Records took an independent approach, by working with controversial and subversive artists as well as successful ones, and providing the artists with the freedom they needed to fully express themselves – an approach that significantly contrasted the conventions of big record labels at the time. Virgin Atlantic appeared out of nowhere, challenging the airline behemoth British Airways, and beating them at their own game. The story of Richard is the story of a man with an adventurous spirit and willingness to set new goals and challenge himself continually. He will continue inspiring people by being the underdog who won.

In 1999, Richard Branson was knighted for his services to entrepreneurship. He resides on Necker Island with his wife Joan, with whom he has two children, Holly and Sam. We hope you have enjoyed exploring Sir Richard Branson biography and his success story, and it has inspired you to new discoveries.

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