How Did Richard Branson Make His Fortune?

Sir Richard Branson is the flamboyant entrepreneur behind the Virgin brand, which began with Virgin Records in 1972. The tycoon is the founder and chair of the Virgin Group, which employs nearly 70,000 people in 35 countries through its 60-plus companies.

Branson's companies include or have included airlines, wireless communications, radio stations, hotels, health clubs, financial services businesses, the nightclub Heaven, renewable technologies, a Formula One team, and even a space tourism company. As of October 2020, the 69-year old Branson's net worth stood at an estimated $4.8 billion, according to Forbes.

Here is a brief look at how the fun-loving Branson grew his Virgin mega-brand and became one of the wealthiest and most successful people in the world.

Key Takeaways

  • Sir Richard Branson is a 69-year old entrepreneur whose net worth stands at an estimated $4.8 billion.
  • Branson founded his first magazine at 16 and owns or has owned airlines, record labels, radio stations, hotels, and many other companies.
  • Highlights include airline Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Records, the label that was home to the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, and others.
  • In 2001, his company teamed with Sprint to launch Virgin Mobile; Virgin wireless communications services are now available around the world.

The 1960s

Richard Branson started at age 16 with his magazine, called Student, which interviewed celebrities and sold almost $8,000 worth of advertising for the first issue. The teenager dropped out of school to promote his magazine. In 1969, he started a mail-order record business that used the magazine office as an operating base. Branson and his team of 20 employees called the new business Virgin.

The 1970s

In 1970, Branson launched Virgin Mail Order Records. After a rocky start, he grew to own 14 record stores by 1972. He used the profits from his record store chain to found music label Virgin Records in 1972, and he earned his first million dollars in 1973 when Virgin recording artist Mike Oldfield sold over 5 million copies of his record, "Tubular Bells."

Part of Branson's early success at Virgin Records came as a result of his willingness to sign the Sex Pistols and other controversial artists. Other popular Virgin acts included The Rolling Stones and Ozzy Osbourne. By the end of the decade, Virgin Music had become one of the top six record companies in the world, with branches in Germany, France, and Japan.

In 1979, Branson purchased Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands for $180,000.

The 1980s

Virgin Books and Virgin Video were born in 1981. Within two years, Branson's business empire included more than 50 different companies with combined sales of more than $17 million.

In 1984, Branson paired with lawyer Randolph Fields to start one of his most famous companies yet, Virgin Atlantic. The airline took off (pardon the pun) due to its fine customer service and innovative in-flight comforts, such as free ice cream, seat-back video screens, and in-flight massages.

The 1990s

In 1992, Branson reluctantly sold Virgin Records for $1 billion in order to keep Virgin Atlantic afloat. These were tumultuous years for Virgin Atlantic. Terrorist attacks kept people from flying, and larger rival British Airways engaged in what Branson called "a hostile campaign designed to cause permanent damage to Virgin."

Branson successfully sued British Airways for libel, with a judge ruling in 1993 that British Airways pay Branson and Virgin $945,000 in damages, plus legal fees estimated at around $3 million, and deliver an apology. In 1997, Branson started Virgin Trains.

He became Sir Richard Branson in 2000, and Time magazine named him as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world in 2007.

The 2000s

In 2001, Virgin Group launched Virgin Mobile as a joint venture with Sprint, and Virgin-branded wireless communications services are now available in numerous countries.

In September 2004, Branson turned his eyes to the sky again and joined forces with Burt Rutan, an American aeronautical engineer, to launch Virgin Galactic, with licensed spacecraft that would take tourists to space. Branson had a vision of providing cheap space tourism. An unfortunate series of events, including a crash in 2014, rerouted the date of the first commercial space flights to some indeterminate time in the future. As of 2019, Branson had signed up 600 clients.

Branson actually has four space-focused companies now. In addition to Virgin Galactic, Virgin also operates Virgin Orbit for cargo, VOX for government missions, and the Spaceship Company, which as the name implies, builds spaceships.

Branson launched social activist projects that included Virgin Unite to combat HIV and AIDS, the Branson Center of Entrepreneurship to teach entrepreneurial skills in developing countries, Virgin Fuels to make cleaner green fuels, and the Virgin Green Fund to help the environment.

1

Sir Richard Branson's current rank on RichTopia's 2019 list of the 100 most influential British entrepreneurs.

The Bottom Line

Branson attributes his success to luck, speed, and hard work that included nights and weekends. His books and biographies cite his daredevil ideas, originality, willingness to buck norms, and persistence. Branson never allowed inexperience to discourage him from being a dynamic and daring entrepreneur. In fact, he named his company Virgin because he and his employees were all new to the business.

His extraordinary service to his employees and clients rated him as the United Kingdom's celebrity dream boss in an opinion poll by Cancer Research U.K. His philanthropy earned him accolades as the most admired business owner over the past five decades in The Sunday Times in 2014.

Article Sources

Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Virgin Group. "About Us." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  2. Virgin Group. "Find a Virgin Company." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  3. Forbes. "#565 Richard Branson." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  4. J.D. Rockefeller. "The Flamboyant Life of Richard Branson," Page 3. J.D. Rockefeller, 2016.

  5. Des Dearlove. "Business the Richard Branson Way," Page 10. Wiley, 2007.

  6. Anna Grandori and Gaillard Giordani. "Organizing Entrepreurship," Pages 65-66. Routledge, 2011.

  7. Inc. "Then Came Branson." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  8. J.D. Rockefeller. "The Flamboyant Life of Richard Branson," Page 4. J.D. Rockefeller, 2016.

  9. Shirley Raye Redmond. "Richard Branson: Virgin Megabrand Mogul," Pages 21-22. Cengage Learning, 2011.

  10. Richard Branson. "How I Bought Necker Island." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  11. Shirley Raye Redmond. "Richard Branson: Virgin Megabrand Mogul," Page 23. Cengage Learning, 2011.

  12. Shirley Raye Redmond. "Richard Branson: Virgin Megabrand Mogul," Pages 23-24. Cengage Learning, 2011.

  13. Virgin Group. "1992." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  14. Chicago Tribune. "British Airway to Pay for 'Dirty Tricks.'" Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  15. Virgin Group. "Virgin Trains." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  16. BBC. "Virgin Tycoon Knighted." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  17. Time. "The 2007 Time 100: Richard Branson." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  18. Virgin Group. "2001." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  19. CNN. "Now Virgin to Offer Trips to Space." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  20. Space News. "Virgin Galactic Hints at More Delays for Start of SpaceShip Two Commercial Flights." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  21. Virgin Galactic. "Investment News: A Message from Richard." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  22. Popular Mechanics. "Why Richard Branson Just Started Yet Another Space Company." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  23. Virgin Unite. "Welcome to Virgin Unite." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  24. Virgin Unite. "What Does the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, Caribbean Do?" Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  25. Virgin Group. "Virgin Green Fund." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  26. Richtopia. "British Entrepreneurs Top 100 (2019)." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  27. Cancer Research UK. "Branson Beats Obama as Celebrity Dream Boss." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.

  28. The Sunday Times. "Revealed: Our Most Admired Business Leader over 50 Years." Accessed Oct. 12, 2020.