Written by Books

Branson: Behind the Mask

Tom Bower is that rare thing – a writer who takes no prisoners. He goes where others fear to tread – or at least UK libel laws force others to fear to tread. His previous subjects have included Robert Maxwell, Bernie Ecclestone, Mohammed Al-Fayed and a previous book on Richard Branson.

I’ve not read the first Branson book, but following a piece by Roy Greenslade at Media Guardian, I decided that I did want to read this follow up.

Bower’s books have a breezy manner and he dives straight into his subject. This isn’t a biography so much as a detailed look at businesses that Branson has been involved in over the last ten years or so. It’s safe to say that he’s not especially impressed with Branson’s credentials.

The over-arching story throughout the book is that of Virgin Galactic – one of several efforts to send privately funded vehicles into space. The books begins with an accident that took place in the Mojave desert in 2007 that killed three people and injured another three. Bower takes apart some of the publicity and public pronouncements that have been repeatedly made about the project.

This is not a comfortable read if you’re a fan of Richard Branson, and the same themes appear over and over in every business he takes an interest in – he’s the underdog fighting for consumers, but in fact he’s no better than anyone else. His fights change to fit his own needs. Is he taking a green approach to his businesses? Or is he opening new air-routes that compete with more environmentally friendly train travel?

Part of his failings seem to be naivety, and lack of attention to detail particularly in technical areas that he doesn’t properly understand. That becomes a liability when it comes to building spacecraft or putting together an F1 team.

Overall, Bower paints a picture of a man who’s not worth as much as is often portrayed. His businesses are largely not owned to any extent by him any longer – Virgin perhaps collecting a small licencing fee.

I don’t always buy everything that Bower says though. He doesn’t have much belief in the idea of peak oil for example – the point at which oil production will decline. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on this either, and I know that there are a lot of factors in play including technological developments and accurate reporting of what resources remain. But what is clear is that fossil fuels extracted from the earth will run out. And in any case, the impact is already being felt. That’s not to say that Branson hasn’t been foolish in some of the things that he’s said about renewable energy and the pointless “tests” involving different kinds of fuel that he regularly brags about.

And Bower isn’t afraid to point out when Branson has had genuine successes – although he often puts then down to luck rather than any business nous.

Nonetheless, some of what Bower says about Branson is very familiar. A couple of stories from my time at Virgin Radio illustrate this.

When I joined in late 1996, we had a staff meeting a few weeks later in early December, and Richard Branson showed up. In case I was under the apprehension that he popped in all the time, it was pointed out to me that this was a fairly rare occurrence (he would only ever show up in Golden Square one further time while I was there, when he was being accompanied by a feature writer from an American magazine who was doing a big piece).

Staff meetings in those days had a bit in them called “Dumb, Dirty and Dangerous.” The idea was that staff members could anonymously ask the executive team questions which would be answered in front of all staff. “Dumb” questions were things to which you probably should know the answer but were too scared to ask someone. “Dirty” questions seemed to be quite bitchy questions along the lines of, “What does the XXX department actually do?” And “Dangerous”? Well that could be anything at all.

Anyway, somebody asked the question, “Will there be a Christmas bonus this year?” Our Finance Director stepped forward and said, no, there wouldn’t be one. I think he gave some reasons why. And that was that.

All the time, Richard Branson was watching proceedings. We went through other elements of the staff meeting until finally at the end, Branson stepped forward to say a few words in a slight mumbled, wearing a trademark jumper. However, he ended by saying that in fact, yes, we would all be getting a Christmas bonus!

Obviously that left staff very happy, although my boss pulled me aside later to explain that as I’d only been there a couple of weeks, I’d be getting less. But the whole incident left our Finance Director seething. Not only did he have to find the money from somewhere, but his authority had been completely undercut by Branson. It was the Virgin Radio business – only partly owned by Branson that would have to pay the cash. But staff would thank Branson himself.

During those years at Virgin Radio, we’d get annual Christmas presents from Richard Branson himself. These tended to be related to whichever new business he was getting into. One year, Branson had just published his first book – Losing My Virginity. And every member of staff across all the Virgin businesses was given a hardback copy of it for Christmas. A Private Eye article a few weeks later suggested that the Charing Cross Branch of Books Etc had ended up having many more copies of the book “returned” than they’d sold, with nearby Virgin employees cashing in their books for the retail value of them!

Another year, we were given a Virgin Vie fragrance. And the year that he launched Virgin Mobile, everyone got a free phone with a bit of credit on it. Indeed, I dutifully passed on my phone to my parents who still use that number to this day.

As far as I, and other members of staff were concerned, this was a nice touch from Branson himself, as were his summer parties in his Oxfordshire home where staff members were bussed to a big free funfair in his grounds. Branson stood at the gate and shook hands welcoming everybody as they came in.

Only later did I learn how those “free” gifts were funded. Each year Virgin Group would tell the businesses what the gift that year was, and they would then charge the Virgin business for the “gifts”. In other words, the year that we all got a free mobile phone, the business was being charged £100 or so per member of staff for a phone. And they had no choice. They had to “buy” the “gifts” to give to staff.

In essence, we all thought that these gifts were coming from a benevolent Branson, while in fact, it was the individual businesses that were spending the money, but not getting the recognition from staff members for giving their employees a sometimes quite pricey gift.

These are perhaps both small stories, but they explain how even to staff members, Branson came across as being a better guy than maybe he was.

Anyway, if you want to get a truer picture of the Virgin business, then this book is certainly worth reading.