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Friday, 31 December, 1999, 00:23 GMT
Branson delighted with knighthood

Richard Branson Mr Branson is renowned for his buccaneering spirit

Multi-millionaire Richard Branson has spoken of his joy at being awarded a knighthood in the New Year's honours list.

The entrepreneur, who is the fifth richest man in Britain, is set to become Sir Richard after 30 years in the public eye.

Richard Branson Richard Branson launches Virgin's mobile phone
The Virgin Group chairman welcomed the knighthood. "I am absolutely delighted to receive this honour," he said.

"I will do my best to live up to it in the new millennium, as I still feel there is much to be achieved," he added, thanking his family, friends and colleagues at Virgin.

The New Year's knighthood is the latest triumph for the businessman, who started life as a hippie entrepreneur with a flair for publicity.

Sir Richard is one of the most flamboyant of Britain's entrepreneurs and one of the most prominant supporters of New Labour.

Born in 1950 and educated at Stowe School, he went into business at 16, publishing 'Student' magazine.

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.

Biggest gamble

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.

Virgin Atlantic Branson recently sold half of Virgin Atlantic for 600m
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.


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, 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.

Ruthless businessman

Soon he set out to be the first to cross the Atlantic by hot air balloon. That trip too nearly ended in disaster.

Once more he was plucked from the water, this time apparently chastened.

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 recent 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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See also:
31 Dec 99 |  UK
In pictures: Branson's adventures
28 Dec 99 |  Business
Branson 'bid' for Dome
20 Dec 99 |  Business
Branson sells 49% of Virgin Atlantic
13 Dec 99 |  Business
Virgin bids for UK lottery
12 Dec 99 |  Business
Virgin lottery bid due
11 Nov 99 |  The Company File
Virgin launches mobile phones

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