A year in the life of Richard Branson

The Virgin boss's railway ambitions have been derailed, but his sights are increasingly on higher things.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 22 Aug 2019

The Sunday Times Rich List estimates that Britain’s best-known bearded billionaire is worth £4.05bn, making him the country’s 34th richest person. The £475m fall in his fortune reflects the poor performance of Virgin Money (which was sold last October to Yorkshire Bank owner CYGB), a threat to the very existence of Virgin Trains (see below) and a £1.1bn investment in space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic. On the upside, he stands to gain £300m from the sale of his 31 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic to Air France-KLM.

Virgin Galactic took one small step closer to commercial space tourism by announcing that it will move its spacecraft – and 100 workers – to Spacecraft America in Upham, New Mexico, this summer. The spaceport, built with $220m of state funding, is already a test bed for UP Aerospace, Boeing and SpinLaunch, the last being a venture that literally plans to fling satellites into space using catapult technology.

Branson called for rail franchising awards to be suspended after the Department of Transport rejected three bids from Virgin Trains because its partner, Stagecoach, had not met pension rules. Stagecoach is appealing against what it calls "opaque decision-making" over one bid and launched legal action with its partners, Virgin and SNCF, against the UK government’s decision to bar Virgin Trains from bidding for the
West Coast line.

In his 77th close shave as Virgin boss – according to his own tally – Branson was almost hit on the head by a banner and a metal bar as he unveiled Virgin Miami station in Florida on 23 April. Virgin has entered the American rail market in partnership with private operator Brightline and has just won funding for a new high-speed line from Miami to Orlando. The construction of the line will take approximately three years. After Branson’s station incident, one Twitter user posted: "Hope the banner and the metal bar are OK."

At a cruise liner conference in Portsmouth on 16 May, Branson made a surprise appearance, telling delegates: "I want to get people on cruises who have never gone before." Virgin Voyages’ new adults-only cruises will swap buffets and dress codes for tattoo parlours, yoga, gigs and DJs. Scarlet Lady, the company’s first cruise ship currently under construction, will include The Manor, a "kick-ass nightclub with a sexy 70s punk vibe" and will dock in an unspecified British port in 2020.

Fintech website TransferWise, of which Branson is a shareholder, is tipped to be heading for an IPO after rejigging its board. Founded in London eight years ago by two Estonians – Skype veteran Taavet Hinrikus and financial consultant Kristo Käärmann – the money transfer company attracted investment from Branson back in 2014.

Image credit: Chatham House/Flickr (creative commons)

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