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Monday, 20 December, 1999, 14:46 GMT
Branson: Still flying high
Multimillionaire Richard Branson started life as a hippie entrepreneur with a flair for publicity.
Now he is even richer after selling half of his airline, Virgin Atlantic, to Singapore Airlines in a £600m deal.
Born in 1950 and educated at Stowe School, he went into business at 16, publishing 'Student' magazine.
The following year he started a students' advisory centre to help young people and at the age of 20 he was the subject of a television documentary.
In 1972 he founded Virgin as a mail order record company and opened his first store, in London's Oxford Street.
Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells', recorded in an Oxfordshire barn and released in 1973, caught the laid-back flavour of the era to become a phenomenal best-seller.
When punk came along, Virgin signed the outrageous Sex Pistols when other record companies refused to touch them. The move turned out to be a marketing coup.
And Mr Branson signed up many other stars, including Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds and The Rolling Stones, making Virgin Records a major player in the international music business.
But Mr Branson himself is always restless.
The business empire he ran from a houseboat on the Thames expanded into films and broadcasting, computer games and even condoms.
In 1984 he took his biggest gamble yet and launched an airline, with a single Jumbo jet shuttling across the Atlantic. British Airways tried to throttle this upstart competitor.
Virgin alleged dirty tricks: the courts agreed, humiliating British Airways and confirming him as a popular hero.
His love of publicity has come into its own, dressing up and playing the fool, becoming a master of the photo-opportunity, usually with a bottle of champagne and a pretty woman or several. With every new stunt his boyish enthusiasm has hyped his company's name.
He floated his company on the Stock Exchange, but the Branson style didn't fit the way City institutions expected public companies to behave. So he bought the company back from the shareholders.
To find the money he had to sell his precious Virgin Records to Thorn-EMI. Even so the price, agreed in 1992, was huge, at almost £500m.
In 1994 he bid to run the National Lottery, promising to give all the profits to charity...and lost. Two years later he sensationally alleged a rival had tried to bribe him to withdraw from the race.
He and G-Tech, the American lottery company, ended up suing each other for libel over the allegation: Mr Branson won. Meanwhile, the Virgin bandwagon roared on as he won important franchises in the country's rail network.
Basking in the reflected glory of Tony Blair's 1997 general election victory, he promised to make the country's railway system the best in the world, though Virgin's reputation for quality was damaged by his trains' poor record.
By now the fifth richest man in Britain, he opened a new store devoted to perfume and cosmetics, part of an empire now stretching into cinema, radio, fashion, finance, drinks, the internet, even bridal services.
But Mr Branson is also renowned for his buccaneering spirit in the air and on the sea as much as in business.
It was 1985 when he set out from New York to beat the record for crossing the Atlantic by boat, revealing his daredevil streak for the first time. Barely 100 miles from home disaster struck. The boat had hit some floating driftwood and rapidly sank.
Mr Branson and the crew had to be plucked from the sea but the escapade made him and the company he had founded household names.
A year later the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was congratulating him on a successful Atlantic crossing in a new boat: but it wasn't enough. Soon he was setting out to be the first to cross the Atlantic by hot air balloon. That trip too nearly ended in disaster.
At journey's end the balloon, out of control, repeatedly ditched in the Irish Sea. Richard Branson and his pilot, Per Lindstrand, jumped. Once more he was plucked from the water, this time apparently chastened.
In March this year, after four unsuccessful attempts at flying round the world by balloon, he saw his rivals Swiss pilot Bertrand Picard and British co-pilot Brian Jones beat him to it.
But while his public image is friendly, idealistic and informal, the sweaters and the stunts sometimes lead rivals to underestimate him. He is a ruthless businessman.
The deal with Singapore Airlines gives him a way to raise hundreds of millions of pounds and avoid the pinstriped suits in the Square Mile.
And it is a boost to his latest venture - Virgin Mobile phones. This attempt to cash in on of the hottest new sectors of the economy will receive the bulk of the cash from his sale of the airline.
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