Books: Real achievements of a butterfly mind

Is our top entrepreneur becoming more thoughtful? The new Branson autobiography suggests so, says Chris Blackhurst.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

At the end of Business Stripped Bare, his latest part biography, part teach-in based on a lifetime in business, Sir Richard Branson observes that even without him, Virgin will be around for many years to come. 'If I do get run over tomorrow, I think it will live on without me, just as Google will live on without its founders, and Microsoft will live on without Bill Gates.'

The comparisons are typically ambitious. Virgin is many things but it is not a Google or Microsoft - not in size, international reach or management structure. It also skirts around their strength: single-sector corporations, they virtually own the industry they are in. Branson's group, in contrast, is a collection of disparate businesses, none dominant in its field.

But despite his best efforts, what emerges in this entertaining account is a picture of a highly individual empire, heavily moulded in the image and personality of its founder and chairman. To claim that Virgin is anything else is disingenuous. Take the episode when the head of Virgin Money e-mails Branson's senior lieutenants in response to the collapse of Northern Rock. She sees an opportunity for Virgin to strike: 'Talk to Northern Rock and the Bank of England direct. Richard could be used as frontman to make some sense of the crisis... Whatever happens, I think we should do some research into who people would trust with financial services now. I bet the answer will be - Richard Branson.' Not Virgin, note, but Branson.

When he has gone, however much he claims otherwise, his successors are unlikely to embark on the sort of adventures we've grown used to and that have come to define Virgin - like steaming into a banking disaster and trying to take over a bank on a whim.

Here, as he recounts his story and the lessons he has learned, he constantly pays tribute to his colleagues' endeavours and admits his own fallibility; but the overwhelming impression is of a group that is bound up in one man.

Branson critics love to point up his failings as much as his successes. But he is Britain's most successful and best-known entrepreneur by a huge margin - and has been for more than two decades now.

His airline is a triumph, his trains have improved the West Coast rail service (when they don't work it's usually the fault of the track engineers), his mobile phones are doing well, life is being breathed into the old NTL cable company that he took over, and his health clubs are also performing.

To dwell on the businesses he has started then closed isn't fair - as he says, he has become a real-life Dragon's Den, where everybody is queuing up with their projects and some prove better than others.

There have been signs recently that he is trying to adopt a more considered approach, of giving cohesion to Virgin. This book is part of that process. It's by a Branson who wants to be seen as a full member of the international heavyweight community, who draws on his friendships with, among others, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Jim Lovelock, developer of the Gaia theory.

Increasingly, he is turning his attention to the problems of the world - to poverty, to Aids in Africa and to climate change. He's even created his own group of 'Elders', wise global leaders to brainstorm the issues. His good intentions can't be denied, but you suspect that even Branson will struggle to make much headway.

He can't hide his bitterness that he was denied Northern Rock because politicians and the press in the UK questioned whether he was fit to be trusted with other people's money and because the Government worried he might profit out of the bank's plight.

Branson is at his most convincing when he describes the Virgin brand and what it stands for. That's because he is describing himself. Business, he says, 'shouldn't be something outside of yourself. It shouldn't be something you can stand away from. And if it is, there's something wrong.'

Virgin is a mirror to Branson. Just as his own mind flits around like a butterfly, it's not always possible to see the connection between the businesses in the group. Throughout, however, there's elan, an attitude of mind that's pure Branson. It makes him a compelling figure. Who else, for instance, would write: 'Frankly, space - outer space - is there for the taking.'

You have to read it twice. Did Branson really say that? He certainly did.

Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a global entrepreneur
Richard Branson
Virgin Books £20

Chris Blackhurst is City editor of the Evening Standard and an editor at large for MT.

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