Reinventing Branson

Sir Richard Branson has made a career and a brand from succeeding against the odds. He has always insisted on being the David rather than the Goliath of global business, the maverick against the establishment.

Yet his 300 Virgin companies are now an economic colossus — the company turnover this year was $25 billion and he stands to make £1 billion from his stake in NTL if the latest takeover bid for the communications company is successful.

His hair may be miraculously golden, but Branson is also 56 and his notorious stuntman antics seem a little less dashing or hilarious. Branson, one feels, would like more gravitas. He is ready for a reinvention.

He has always had a sharp eye for trends and has noticed that fellow billionaires, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, have become philanthropists and statesmen. Branson is wondering, in other words, whether an entrepreneur could not sort out the world's problems better than politicians.

Last month on his Necker island he hosted a conference on this theme. His idea is to create a world council of 'Elders' — a kind of United Nations of the great, the good and the rich — to tackle issues such as conflict and global warming. He says he has the backing of Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. It is either the kind of leap of imagination that singles out great entrepreneurs or an act of childish hubris.

An obvious difference between Branson's approach to the world's problems and that of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett — the world's two richest men — is that they have put their money where their beliefs are. Buffett recently announced his intention to donate most of his £35 billion fortune to the Gates Foundation, which funds the fight against diseases such as malaria, Aids and tuberculosis.

Branson answers quickly that he will look at putting up money when he is as old as Buffett, who is 75. He certainly does not intend to leave it all to his two children, and he says they would not want it.

"The idea that it would end up in a children's bank account, languishing with trustees managing it, is something I would not like to see."

It is part of the Richard Branson mythology that he left school at 15 and made his own way in the world. So it is hardly surprising that he has no great respect for university education. But the experience of his daughter, Holly, who is training to be a doctor, has convinced him that our universities are in need of drastic reform. His first social challenge would be to fix them.

"I think the sad thing about university education and schooling is that a lot of it is just designed to occupy people's time rather than really educate," he says.

Meanwhile, Branson is setting up his own university, which will teach students about the causes of world conflict and social issues and which will move like a travelling circus around the world's trouble spots.

He says that initially he will admit 600 students and they will get first-class tuition from his 'Elders'. Neatly, they, in turn, will be unpaid researchers for the Elders.

The campuses will be 'tented structures', pitched in different countries, already being designed by the Virgin events manager, and students will pay to be admitted, making the venture self-financing.

Branson's division of attention at Virgin is said to be 40 per cent publicity, 30 per cent monitoring existing business and 30 per cent looking at new ventures. Now he says that 50 per cent of his time is going to be spent on social/philanthropic issues. So who will succeed him?

Like many self-made men, Branson has a strong dynastic impulse. He would love to see his children take on the Virgin business, and is itching to train them up so that he can concentrate on philanthropic issues.

Of the two, Holly, 24, has the better business brain, but she has confounded everyone with a passionate determination to be a paediatrician. This leaves Sam, a 20-year-old with boy-band good looks and great charm.

Since Virgin is a personality-based business rather than a faceless corporation — Branson has described the brand appeal as 'mavericks in paradise' — Sam certainly has the right image for the company.

Branson is cautious about a public anointing, but his wishes are clear.

"I had the satisfaction of carving out my own niche in life and I know that is important. It's great for kids to say that they did it themselves and they didn't rely on their parents. So I have never given them any hint that I would like them to come and work at Virgin. They do their own thing.

"Having said that, Sam is very personable, and one day . . . I certainly don't rule it out. With a group of companies like Virgin, it helps to have a front person, someone who, if CNN rings up, can go and represent them all. It would be good to have someone to pull that together."

Later in the conversation, Branson turns again to Sam's hypothetical role in the company.

"His big strength is his people skills — I don't want to over-push him, because he's still not 21 and he's having a good time, but there will come a time when me jumping out of planes or going up in jets . . . well, a good-looking, younger version would be more appropriate."

In the past, Richard and his wife, Joan, have always refused Press requests to interview their children, but we are permitted a short time with Sam during Virgin Atlantic's inaugural flight to Jamaica.

His father says Sam spent so much of his childhood at Necker that he is practically white Caribbean, and he does have a preternaturally relaxed air, along with a gentle and polite manner. He says he appreciates the way of life in the West Indies.

"It's the mentality: you've only one life, so why rush through it. I love the positive attitude and that it is unmaterialistic. Of course, this mentality is easier to acquire if you do not have to worry about money."

Sam has none of the brattishness, the forlorn, mucked-up, attention-seeking qualities, that you sometimes see on the rich-kids circuit. This must be a tribute to the stability of his parents' marriage and his mother's full-time attention. "Joan's life is her children," says Branson.

Sam says being the son of a famous figure has not knowingly affected him. "In the family sense, it hasn't had any effect. My parents have kept me out of the public eye."

He attended a traditional boarding school, St Edward's in Oxford, and spent his holidays at the family's Oxfordshire home or on Necker.

Sam's friends are also the children of famous parents — Sting's offspring, for instance, and Princes William and Harry (Kate Middleton is a good friend of Holly, and Richard Branson endorses her as a future Queen).

Sam also has a circle of friends from school and the music college he attends, Guitar X in Acton.

He is planning his 21st birthday party for later this month, with 260 people invited to a Mad Hatter's Tea Party-themed bash at the Bransons' Oxfordshire home.

It seems hard to spoil the fun by mentioning that, as with his friends William and Harry, there is a shadow of dynastic duty. Ask him tentatively about his long-term plans and he looks rather serious. "At this age, you have a dilemma," he says.

He loves song-writing, but does not expect to make a living out of it. He looks excited when I mention acting. He has had two cameo roles in Superman Returns and the forthcoming Bond movie Casino Royale.

"I am fascinated by how people do it. Being in the films has been an amazing experience, to see what goes into it," he says. "I have a lot of respect for actors, how they become the part; I don't know if I could do it."

As he says, his experiences have been the making of him, and there may be a pre-ordained path. I ask him how he feels about becoming a public figure and he answers stoutly that as long as it is for the work he does, he doesn't mind.

He adds that he knows he has had unusual opportunities. "I would like to do some good," he says. The only obstacle to his running Virgin may be his sudden nervousness about flying. "Recently I have become anxious," he says. "But I'm sure I can manage it."

The driving force behind Richard Branson continues to be his mother, Eve, who is now in her 80s. While Joan Branson keeps a low profile, her mother-in-law loves the travel and the adventure.

Branson's preoccupation with using his time properly also comes from his mother. They are a family with a lot of time to fill — Branson's grandmother lived to be nearly 100 and Eve Branson, who travels the world with her son, is about to embark on a new career. She has just finished her autobiography, is starting a book called Life Begins At 70 and has been taking lessons in how to write romantic novels.

Eve Branson, who worked as an air hostess after the war — "one had been so cooped up, one wanted adventure ... much more dangerous in those days, although I couldn't care less about crashing" — has also become a mother figure to Virgin stewardesses, asking them about their boyfriends and whether they are eating properly.

Sam Branson says his mother is as quiet as his father is extrovert — "she would never do something like bungee-jumping".

Sam adds: "I think I'm becoming more like my father. I hope I have his love of life."

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