What are the dark secrets that lurk behind the public image of the fun-loving entrepreneur?
Tom Bower really doesn't like Richard Branson and Richard Branson really doesn't like Tom Bower. This is the second Branson biography Bower has written. The first, published in 2000, was described by Branson as a "foul, foul piece of work", which is what I was hoping this would be. The first book was republished in 2008 with added extras: even more business failures, as if to pre-empt Branson's authorised biography Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune. On the cover of that book Branson's hair is artfully tousled: that bible of overblown aspiration GQ magazine tells us that "probably no one is nearly as much fun to be around". He's a swashbuckler! He is sexy and smart and all he wants is for other people to have fun too!
Bower does not think he is fun at all, and has produced another 300 pages charting the last few years – his miserable failures, his silly boasting, his fake altruism and er … Virgin Galactic. Much of the world sees Branson as an entrepreneur who has been phenomenally successful at branding. We tend to forget the condoms and the cola and remember the things that did work, as well his daft adventures in hot air balloons and all the cunning stunts with near naked blondes. He now appears something of a throwback, but then much of the business world still inhabits the last century.
Bower particularly resents Branson's image as the people's champion, always on the side of the consumer. David versus Goliath. I wonder if Branson, the rebel without a necktie, really does represent this any more. For my generation he was always the dealer who never got stoned himself, ripped you off and made a clumsy pass. So Bower's barely concealed rage that Branson lies, cheats and does anything to make a deal is extreme. Is it such a huge revelation? Perhaps it is in a culture that encourages us to see businessmen as heroic. Yet the reality is nauseating – the charmless, sexist dinosaurs: Sugar, Trump, the grumps on Dragons' Den.
In the era of Bill Gates there are other models of business and what it can do, yet Branson, for all his waffle about the environment and the extreme responsibility that comes with extreme wealth, does little that is not for himself.
He gives inspirational quotes, says Steve Jobs was wrong, talks of his philosophy of business as being about doing only what you are proud of, and not about just making money. He advocates ethical transparency and claims consumers associate honesty with his brand. He hangs out out with Gore, Clinton and the Blairs. Everyone holidays on Necker, his Caribbean island. Everyone pays Richard back in kind. Cherie sidles up to him at a do saying Tony must do a little something for him and it's arise Sir Richard.
As Sir Richard campaigns for a fairer world, flying his private jet into climate change summits, it's worth being reminded – and Bower reminds us here – that Virgin Atlantic Airways is run through 11 companies ending up with Virgin Group Holdings Ltd. This is then owned by a trust whose chief beneficiaries are Branson and his family. "But to prevent any tax charge ever arising against the Bransons, the legal documents make it absolutely clear that trustees and not the Branson family actually control Virgin Group Holdings." The identities of these trustees is never disclosed. Thus the business is run from Necker, now considerably easier in the days of Skype, while Branson lectures others on transparency and accountability.
Bower starts this account with Branson's attempt at space travel: the four-minute flights for the super wealthy that have yet to get off the ground. And on and on he goes. Everything Branson touches is financed by other people's money, ill-thought-out, dodgy – and yet no one blames Branson himself. Bower claims the brand is stagnating, but in the end his monotone of hostility actually makes you side with Branson, or almost. To the point one feels that if Branson funded a cure for cancer, Bower would deem it yet another overhyped fiasco.
Bower's forays into the business world may be exhaustively researched, but there is nothing here of Branson the man or any attempt to understand his drive. For this I went back to Mick Brown's authorised biography, so desperate was I to get out of the boardroom. I wanted some childhood, some salacious detail. Bower, for instance, mentions Branson is a philanderer but says no more.
But even in the authorised biography, Branson emerges as a socially awkward but inwardly confident boy who cheats at exams, egged on by a mother who tells him he can do anything. His first sexual experience is with a prostitute paid for by his father. Such is the public school way. He actually seems to have been a rather lonely child. He had no interest in books. And, it seems, no real relationship to music. Later in life he would declare himself dyslexic.
Though early on he presented himself as some kind of countercultural figure, getting himself snapped with Tariq Ali, he did not share the ideals of the time. He became known for stunts and pranks – but everything was "99.5 % business". He enjoyed one-night-stands and crossdressing. There are various accounts of him dropping his trousers to reveal lacy stockings and suspenders.
None of this is in Bower's book, which may be more high-minded but lacks a centre, a purpose, a personality. Once you grasp that Branson is an expert deal maker who persuades people to do his bidding and then drops them in it, all you get is a list of scenarios in which he has done this. When he does appear to have actual beliefs – such as in the decriminalisation of cannabis – Bower dismisses them as a search for new business opportunities.
Though Branson may fashion himself as the people's champion, do we actually believe that wealth confers moral legitimacy? Do we see the man or the mask? Once when he propositioned and was turned down by the journalist Suzie Mackenzie, she described him as "a vacuum". Despite the "Carry On Blondes" and the derring do this seems fitting. He is a stumbling public speaker (the stunts disguise this); his passions are for deals and not wearing ties. There is nothing he will not sell, from an Isa to space travel. The public image is one of jet-setting eternal fun but Bower is probably right to say that Virgin leaves no legacy – that Branson has ultimately done nothing for the British economy or British society.
Why do we expect him to? He is a salesman who breaks rules not out of any radical impulse but because he has always got away with it. To some he is the "iconic model of a super wealth-creator". But John Lydon was more succinct when he said "never trust a hippy". Even as Bower picks apart the brand's financial performance – gesturing to Branson's vulgarity and cowardice; the duplicity of the man – the mask stays on. The mask surely is the brand. Which is why he wears it so well.
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