richard branson

Branson’s pickle: Is this the end of Virgin as we know it?

The coronavirus crisis hasn’t been kind to the Virgin coffers, or public image. Do Richard Branson’s space-centric ventures hold the key to the company’s future?

In 2011 the Great House, part of the $10 million Necker Island retreat owned by Richard Branson, caught fire after being hit by lightning during Tropical Storm Irene. Among the 20 guests who escaped unharmed from the fire was the actress Kate Winslet who reportedly carried Branson’s then 87-year old mother from the flames. Six years later, in September 2017, Hurricane Irma hit the island, destroying most of the infrastructure.

“I have never seen anything like this hurricane. Necker and the whole area have been completely and utterly devastated,” Branson said at the time.

Before Branson bought the island for $120,000 in 1978 (he now charges from $3,500 per room per night, or $87,500 to book the entire island), Daily Telegraph journalists Don McCullin and Andrew Alexander spent 15 days of a planned three weeks on the island for an article having “hoisted the red flag” due to the inhospitable conditions. According to McCullin, “The mosquitos and other insects were more venomous and persistent than any I had encountered in Vietnam or the Congo.”

All of which begs the question why would the British Government consider the hurricane-prone tropical island as collateral against a £600 million loan to bail out Branson’s struggling Virgin Atlantic airline? Yet this was exactly the proposal floated by Branson this April as Virgin Atlantic took a massive blow when coronavirus grounded air travel.

Reports that Branson has sold more than £400 million worth of Virgin Galactic stock in order to save the airline suggest a desperate bid to save the company, possibly at the expense of Virgin’s space-bound future.

necker island
Necker Island, the beautiful but hurricane-prone private island belonging to Richard Branson

Branson’s early life offered subtle foreshadowings. His mother, Eve, was, among other professions, an air hostess (his father, Edward was a barrister). And, graduating school in 1966, his headmaster told Branson (who suffered from dyslexia) that he would either end up in prison or a millionaire. Today, his net worth is estimated in the billions, not millions.

His first business ventures saw Branson attempting to sell Christmas trees and pet budgies, but it was the launch of Student magazine in 1966 that saw Branson’s career take the first cautious steps towards flight. Using the magazine to sell albums at a more competitive price than the high street, Branson saw his net worth rise to £50,000 within a year of the publication of the first issue in 1968. Three years later, he opened his first record shop on Oxford Street. A record label, Virgin Records, launched a year later, so-named because as a company they were ‘virgins’ in the world of business.

Its virgin status didn’t stop Branson signing acts like the The Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones and Paula Abdul – savvy business moves that saw it become the worlds biggest independent record label by the early ‘80s.

The story of how Virgin Airlines first took off owes a debt to Branson’s peculiar style of eccentricity. Stranded after a cancelled flight en route to Puerto Rico, Branson chartered a private plane and offered the other passengers a lift. Naturally, he diversified and formed Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984, selling his record label to EMI for £500 million in 1992 in order to keep the airline afloat, again pre-shadowing measures taken this year to save Virgin Atlantic once again.

“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them… from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it,” Branson wrote of his decision to start an airline in his autobiography, Losing My Virginity.

In 1993, he expanded yet again to launch Virgin Trains. Not content with having cornered the terrestrial travel market, Branson announced commercial space flights via Virgin Galactic in 2004 and Virgin Media in 2006. Among his many, many other ventures Branson also set up (deep breath) Virgin Comics, Virgin Healthcare, Virgin Express, Virgin Fuels, The Virgin Green Fund, Virgin Hotels, Virgin Racing, Virgin Bets, Virgin Wines and many more, alongside failed ventures including: Virgin Cola, Virgin Cars, Virgin Publishing, Virgin Clothing and Virgin Brides.

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