UK: Billionaire Branson big on ambition, short on planes.

UK: Billionaire Branson big on ambition, short on planes. - Is there no stopping Richard Branson? Everything that the 41-year-old Virgin boss touches seems to turn to gold. And this month that will be confirmed by his admission to the most exclusive club

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Is there no stopping Richard Branson? Everything that the 41-year-old Virgin boss touches seems to turn to gold. And this month that will be confirmed by his admission to the most exclusive club in the world - the annual list of the world's billionaires, compiled by Fortune, the American business magazine.

Branson's wealth, much of it tied up in the Virgin empire, is reckoned to be close on £900 million, or $1,469 million, which puts him comfortably in the dollar billionaire league. According to our tried and trusted back-of-the-envelope calculations, in the 21 years that Branson has been in business, his fortune has increased by $2.21 a second - or just over $10 in the time that it has taken you to read this sentence.

The Midas touch is evident in the valuations for the various parts of the Virgin empire: music, $1,238 million; communications, $132 million; and nearly $600 million for the Virgin Atlantic airline. In total, the Virgin group is valued at some $2.6 billion (£1.5 billion).

But the Fortune researchers concluded that in many of the businesses there was a Branson premium - his name alone enhances values by up to 25%. This premium would disappear if Branson decided to sell. At present, of course, with several rounds in the British Airways/Virgin Atlantic battle successfully under his belt, Branson prefers to buy on a jumbo scale. He has placed an order for two 747s to swell the Virgin fleet of eight.

Just over half of the existing Virgin planes operate out of Heathrow on the routes to Tokyo, New York (JFK) and Los Angeles; the remainder fly from Gatwick to Miami, Orlando, Newark and Boston. However, Branson is keen to expand from his transatlantic turf. With permission to fly to Australia and Singapore, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington DC already in place, and negotiations for the lucrative Johannesburg route well underway, he has, it seems, set his sights on the globe.

Arguably, however, his fleet is already feeling the strain. In March one plane had mechanical troubles and another a crack in its wing, forcing Virgin Atlantic to commission an old British Caledonian replacement. The resulting delay cost travellers a day, and though sun worshippers might be willing to tolerate long waits, they could prove too much for the winged messengers of Mammon.

No airline can afford to have a spare plane waiting in the wings, but Virgin is more limited than most in the resources that it has available to juggle with. BA has 235 planes, United Airlines 464 and American Airlines, with a fleet of 559, counts as a veritable Titan. Even when it reaches 10 at the end of the year, Virgin Atlantic will remain an infant.

Yet, far from modifying his aspirations to accommodate his resources, Branson now hopes to secure the profitable Hong Kong and Seoul routes. It is all part of his 10-year plan to fly to the world's top 12 cities and secure 30% of Britain's transatlantic traffic within three years. BA's outspoken chairman, Lord King, recently accused Branson of being a "pirate", as a result of this highly successful cherrypicking policy.

It is no secret that Virgin Atlantic has also been negotiating some sort of association with British Midland, the short-haul specialist. Branson has, as the gossip columnists say, recently "been seen in the company of" BM chief Sir Michael Bishop. A BM-Virgin joint venture would really put the wind up BA.

But the main thrust of Branson's practical plans is the purchase of a further six planes in 1993-94, bringing the total Virgin fleet to 16. Since Boeing 747s hardly come cheap, he proposes funding the venture through the sale of a second slice of Voyager Holdings, the company whose assets include Necker Island, a paradise worthy of "Blue Lagoon" star Brooke Shields.

Nevertheless, sizeable though such an investment would be, it may take more than an island to secure a place in the air space above the entire earth. The man who would be King may yet find his progress halted - by a Virgin Atlantic plane laid up in a hangar.

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