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.