Sir Richard Branson is the flamboyant entrepreneur behind the Virgin brand, which began with Virgin Records in 1972. The tycoon is the founder and chairman 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 December 2017, Branson's net worth stood at an estimated $5.1 billion, according to Forbes, making him the eighth richest U.K. citizen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. This was also the year that Branson started Virgin Trains.
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 2016, Branson had signed up 700 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, build 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.
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 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 2007. And Branson is currently ranked No. 1 on RichTopia's list of the 100 most influential British entrepreneurs.