He's been slated by a biographer and vilified for his tardy trains - and he was routed in the Lottery battle. Yet the Virgin boss insists his fortunes are on the up again, and colleagues herald a new, cerebral Branson style. Is the once-carefree Virgin Emperor coming of age?
Sir Richard Branson pops his head round the side of the door. 'Erm, hello, this way.' The fact that he opens his own front door - I think this house in London's Holland Park is his office but then again, there are bedrooms upstairs - seems rather appealing to me. Britain's best-known entrepreneur, 200-odd companies, pounds 3 billion or more in revenues, and there's not a flunky in sight, just a cheery-looking chef beavering away in the tiny kitchen making lunch for some suits who are going to turn up later. Maybe Branson has sent everyone away for effect. Who knows?
He's certainly looking good, whatever he's doing. He's decidedly spry for a man in his early fifties: layered blonde hair and beard beautifully cut and highlighted - less grey than last time I saw him - figure trim, blue eyes set off by the azure of the expensive-looking, open-necked shirt. He is still as charmingly hesitant as ever, all soft-spoken ums and erms. Shall we sit on the sofa, he asks? Oh, it's such a nice day, it'd be much better just playing tennis. Hell, let's sit outside.
He shoots impulsively out of the French windows onto the large terrace, taking a seat at a vast teak table and swigging from a beaker of iced water that he clutches like a lifebelt. He doesn't offer me a drink, something he gets very apologetic about later, and he looks rather more nervous than he used to in interviews. A few take this for an act, but then again, unusually for a man with such a high profile, he's always saying he hates interviews.
'Actually, I hope I've never said that,' he says, glancing with concern at my tape recorder.
A few times, yup.
'Oh well ...' He smiles guiltily, that rack of perfect teeth glinting in the sun, then adds that he'd just been interviewed by someone who'd rung up later to say the tape hadn't worked, and so could they do it again? He was not sure if he could face it, guffing on about himself. Then he adds that he's sure some people will find that hard to believe.
The remark is a prescient one, for if one thing is clear, Branson knows his reputation has changed over the past two years. Tom Bower's bile-filled biography; the failure to win the Lottery; the terrible performance of Virgin trains; the queries over loans staked on Virgin Atlantic shares; the suspicions over just how much money is going offshore - somehow the landscape is different.
He knows, for instance, that journalists and politicians and many business figures are a lot more sceptical about his success now, and it shows in some of his remarks - little jibes about those who make out he is a publicity hound and ruthless profiteer hiding behind a Mr Nice Guy image.
Yet at the same time, it's clear, he also feels things are looking up. The bulk of the British public still adore him - that much is obvious in any poll - and there is a sense that he could now be over the worst.
He has some good-news stories inside the Virgin empire and there's also been an attempt to reposition his business rationale by describing his approach as 'branded venture capital'. This is coupled with the feeling that he's becoming more part of the establishment than he ever was. Or maybe the new tieless establishment is becoming more like him. Either way, he is certainly still a key icon in an increasingly entrepreneurial world.
Heck, he's even got shiny new trains running on his rail service, and a new epilogue written for his 1998 autobiography Losing My Virginity, which just keeps selling and selling. Something must be going right.
I wonder if he feels stronger for having survived the onslaught?
'Well, erm, I don't know ... Nobody likes criticism, and nobody likes criticism that they feel to be inaccurate. But I think as far as the public are concerned, if they get to know you like a brother or sister, and someone throws a bit of mud, so long as it doesn't prove to be accurate over time ...' ... It doesn't stick? (The temptation to finish Branson's hesitant sentences is continual.) 'Sure,' he says. 'Bower's premise was that the Virgin empire was built on sand and it was going to go bust. So as long as we don't go bust, that premise goes away.'
Had he actually read the book? 'Well,' he smiles tersely, 'I got through the first couple of chapters - when the book is about yourself you make the effort - then I thought, Christ, this is awful. It just seemed garbage, and fortunately it didn't sell. The public took it for what it was.'
He looks off into the middle distance, as if lost in another point. Others around him say they had to work hard to persuade him not to sue, a policy they feel has been vindicated. Branson is, however, still hurt that Bower's book may have affected Westminster's opinion of him at a time when he was trying to win the National Lottery franchise from Camelot. 'It felt like a concerted campaign,' he says, noting that the Daily Mail, where Bower's wife was deputy editor, was particularly aggressive. Then, as soon as his Lottery bid failed, it all stopped.
He has never felt so passionate about anything as that bid, he adds, shaking his head. Will he bid again? Perhaps, but not under the current rules. He is just upset, he says, because the Government is missing out on 'billions of pounds' of money for good causes that could have been raised, and he thinks that Camelot is not making a good fist of it.
But maybe the Government had a point. Bower isn't the only man to have queried Branson's figures and methods. There are quite a few people in the City and outside who think the Virgin boss has been too sharp in his business dealings for his own good. I can remember one venture capitalist telling me 18 months ago that Branson's empire would unravel in the next few years. 'He will go down. I absolutely predict it,' he had said. He too had had his fingers burnt dealing with Virgin.
Branson shrugs. People have been predicting his demise for years, he says, ever since featuring, aged 17, in a gushing BBC documentary about young tyros who were up and coming. 'They called it Men of the Future. I think Private Eye called it Men of the Past! And if you look through the press cuttings you'll see the headlines: 'Branson's Boat will Sink', 'Branson's Balloon will Burst' - actually,' he says, as if revealing something best left unuttered, 'I think you may have written some of those features yourself ...'
Ah, that's why he's wary. Branson rarely forgets a criticism, and likes writers to be fully behind him, or off the team. For a moment, I worry that he's going to make an issue of something I can't even remember, but then he smiles and gives a reproachful look, as if to say, how could you?
So, what is 'branded venture capital'? 'Well, that's more Willtalk than mine,' he laughs, referring to his director of corporate affairs, Will Whitehorn. (The role of Whitehorn is, for those who don't know, analogous to that of Alastair Campbell, helping to interpret Branson projects for an occasionally confused or sceptical press. Branson calls it 'intellectualising what we're doing'.)
'But I can see where Will is coming from,' he continues quickly, when he sees my bemused look. 'In a sense we have always been a branded venture capital company. Whereas other global brands specialise in one area, we have become a way-of-life brand that cuts across most sectors where we think we can make a difference.' In this way, Virgin takes stakes, pulls in partners, adds a bit of profile and expertise, extracts profit, moves on, or maybe stays, changing partners ...
It is what Branson has always done, a style devised to suit his genius for opportunism combined with his short attention span. 'Yeah, I get restless.
Once I've learnt about something, I like to move on. The day-to-day running is better done by someone other than myself, someone who is much more passionate about the subject matter.'
But it is also these tangled relationships that have caused him most problems, with unhappy partners sometimes left perplexed at the outcome of the collaboration. One recent partner, the financier Rory McCarthy, who invested with Branson in the jeans and cosmetics company Victory and lost a considerable sum of money, memorably described the Virgin boss afterwards as 'a smiling assassin'.
It's a tag that Branson is going to have to work hard to shrug off now, especially as he is talking of eventually floating stakes in some of his more successful ventures: Virgin Blue, the budget airline he set up in Australia; Virgin Active, the health club chain he bought into; and even Virgin Atlantic, the airline he set up in 1984 and now co-owns with Singapore Airlines.
This move back to the stock market is even more surprising when you remember Virgin's brief, unhappy experience as a public company 16 years ago. Well, it was different then, says Branson quickly. Virgin actually did really well, he explains, but then was hammered by the 1987 stock crash. Friends and family who owned shares got hit; it was only fair they got their money back - that's why he took the company private again so quickly.
But he felt constrained atop a public company, surely?
'Yeah, that's true, the City is apt to think about where the money's coming from over three to six months. As an entrepreneur, you want to build companies over five to 10 years.' But more than that, he hated having to account to a board, he could not follow gut instincts, they were getting frustrated with him ...
He raises his hands. 'Yes, guilty as charged.' He pauses, as if he's just sussed where this is leading. 'OK, and I can see your next point coming. But 16 years later our position is different. We have 200-plus companies run autonomously, often with external partners, often with non-execs on boards already set up and run in a similar way to public companies.
Generally, I am not executive chairman, more like presidential chairman.
I'm not hands-on, I just dive in occasionally ...'
His role in many of these ventures now, he says, is to keep his desk clear, to 'firefight', to come up with new ideas for the rest of the group, to make sure people know about new companies when they are being launched.
That afternoon, for instance, he'd be palling up with the chairman of MTV and hundreds of journalists round the world to talk about the launch of Virgin Mobile in the US. On Friday he's doing the 18th birthday party of Virgin Atlantic ...
So his key job now is just chief drum-beater? No, it's more complex than that, he says; it's chief brand-builder. 'The old-fashioned ways of chairmen hiding behind their PRs just doesn't work any more. It's about the importance of the brand, and we are trying to create the number one, most respected brand in the world. I spend around 250 days travelling round the world every year, talking about new ideas, motivating staff, being with them.'
What's interesting is that 10 years ago, Branson rarely talked so willingly about branding and his use of the media. It's almost as if he's read the millions of words analysing his success and post-rationalised it all - yes, they're right, that's what I am doing.
A similar development is his willingness to unpick the psychological forces in his make-up. He is, as many have pointed out, the least intellectual of men, for all his acuity at finance and marketing. Yet he is now rather more interested than he was in all the bits behind his success: the Home Counties upbringing; the decision to go straight into business after public school; the impact his parents made on him - his 'unambitious', genial, barrister dad, his driven, frustrated, outgoing mother.
'Yeah, I've thought about it a lot, actually,' he says. 'And there's no question that I take after my mother more than my father.'
Is he, as some contend, his mother's creation? The quiet boy who was taught to be outgoing, told that being shy was being selfish, who was made to perform to win his mum's love?
'A lot of people would laugh that you call me shy but yes, I guess I've overcome it. Mum would make sure that we performed, that we were always doing rather than watching. And the female side of my family did everything ... So I guess it's just about keeping up with them!'
And here he is today, still performing, doing interviews he doesn't really feel comfortable with, because he still needs to win that affection and his companies need profile. It's ingrained in him.
Others who work with him say that Branson has changed: that he has become a great deal less impulsive, much more thoughtful, and is more conscious of setting a good example for his two children - 20-year-old Holly, who is training to be a doctor, and especially his 16-year-old son Sam, who has ambitions to follow his father into business.
'The Richard I started working for felt he had to push everyone to go out on a limb for the business. He's less like that now,' says Will Whitehorn.
'I think he feels he wants to leave a legacy; he is beginning to read more about how businesses are established.'
The realisation that he has built up a well-recognised, global brand on a fraction of the spend of many other businesses has, Whitehorn believes, made Branson more keen to preserve what's been gained. And not blow it away on a few gambles. 'The reality is you are going to get some things right and some things wrong,' he adds, commenting on Virgin's dash for growth in the '80s and '90s. The future will be more thought-out, he promises.
But the past has already influenced many people. I wondered if Branson was flattered or threatened by the entrepreneurs who have already intellectualised, and copied, his approach. Stelios Haji-Ioannou, for instance?
'I know Stelios well and I like him enormously,' grins Branson.
Does he know what makes Stelios tick?
'Hmm. Well, sons of rich fathers often implode in some way, and, erm, it is fantastic how he has used his father's money. My God, he has used it well.'
Is there a bit of a father-son relationship going on here?
'Yeah, maybe,' says Branson, looking pleased with the question. 'A little bit. I send him the odd congratulatory note when I agree with something he's done. Like father-son, but he's old enough for us to get drunk together!
And if you look at the approach he's taken to running his business, well, I think he respects what Virgin has done, using a brand name that crosses borders.'
But more than respect it, he's studied it as a template, then trumped his teacher. Shouldn't Virgin have competed against Stelios' easyJet in the British budget-airline market?
Yes, says Branson, but his team thought, wrongly, that a UK-based budget airline would conflict with the quality proposition of Virgin Atlantic.
He pauses, clearly considering how to account for the error. 'Having said that, we did learn from not making that move in the UK, so we set up Virgin Blue in Australia, and that has got everything right: the lowest cost base of any airline in the world, the youngest planes. The prices it is offering have reduced fares by over 50%.'
He is unable to talk about its probable profits before its partial float next year, but the figures, he promises, will be 'phenomenal'.
And stakes will be sold, money will come back to Virgin, more profit made. Perhaps he will put the proceeds into Virgin Atlantic, which lost pounds 44 million last year. There was a minor kerfuffle recently when it was revealed Branson had quietly borrowed money, staking his airline shares as surety.
Embarrassing? He dismisses the point, saying they do it all the time; it's just a cheaper way of borrowing rather than selling stakes too soon.
But it all adds to the perception that somehow Branson's empire is not always transparent, that there's often a bit of a performance masking the reality of the situation.
Branson must be conscious of that, as there have even been comments from Whitehorn recently that Virgin is thinking of bringing some of its holding company vehicles back onshore, because of the tax breaks now offered for start-up companies. Perhaps Branson also realises that it's now an easy stick for his enemies to beat him with.
So how are relations with British Airways? Fine, he says. 'The difference between now and when Bob Ayling was in charge of BA is that we compete ferociously in the daytime, but socialise in the evening.' And at least, he adds, he doesn't expect to find anyone rustling through his rubbish bins at the end of it.
And the trains? He admitted a year ago that Virgin trains were 'f****d'.
Those of us who've broken down on them travelling up to Manchester would heartily agree. Does he regret his whole involvement in running trains now?
No, he says, it's just that other things have conspired against Virgin.
The upgrade of the track has taken longer than anyone thought. 'Sadly, the original management team at Railtrack miscalculated badly, actually not just badly but unbelievably badly, to the tune of billions of pounds ... and I accept that the engines, well, I've said before they were f****d and they were - clapped-out equipment that previous governments should have replaced.'
But the Strategic Rail Authority has an ex-Virgin man, Richard Bowker, at the helm now, and Virgin Rail's new trains will, says Branson, surprise everyone.
'There is still pain ahead, because of work that's not been done in the past, and there will be weekend disruptions while they sort out the track ... But people will notice the difference and we have staked our reputation on it. In a handful of years' time people will say that one of the best things that Virgin has brought to the UK is the transformation of the rail system.'
Really? Certainly he believes it; you can see it in his eyes. But the suits are assembling in his garden for their pre-prandial drinks and his schedule is getting squeezed. We've already had to shift the interview upstairs to a bedroom annex. Now Branson leads me down a little back staircase towards the hall.
I note how he's kept himself hidden while people arrived, as if just to go and say 'hello, be back in a minute' would have been futile - once in the crowd, he couldn't have dragged himself away from a willing audience; he would have hated to disappoint. What's impossible to calibrate is just how great an element of calculation there is in that performance, and how much that has changed over the years. Less impulsive, more thoughtful, more thought-out? Maybe. A survivor, certainly, and still popular, even if you can never quite put your finger on how he does it. Cheerio then, he says, with a relieved grin, from the door.
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