Richard Branson

“You will either go to prison or become a millionaire,”

“You will either go to prison or become a millionaire,” the headmaster told the young man. That was nearly 30 years ago, and while Richard Branson never made it to the “gaol,” he has most assuredly become a millionaire…many times over. He is founder and chairman of the Virgin Group of Companies, one of the United Kingdom’s largest private, multinational groups, consisting of airline, media, entertainment, and travel interests.

Branson is filled with ideas. Where others see pitfalls and disaster, he sees opportunity and success. What he lacks in sophisticated knowledge of a business, he is able to coax from others. His first enterprise was a magazine called Student, which he started at age 16 by selling $10,000 in advertising over the telephone. It was a commercial failure, yet somehow, Branson had been able to attract such notables as Vanessa Redgrave and John LeCarre to write for it. A year later, he created a student advisory service center to help young people with medical, psychological, and legal problems.

By 1970, with ideas still bristling, Branson founded Virgin as a mail-order record company and then opened a record shop in London. In 1972, he built a recording studio and started a record label. His first big break came when his friend and composer, Mike Oldfield, recorded “Tubular Bells,” an album that sold more than five million copies. Over the years, such artists as Steve Winwood, Paula Abdul, Belinda Carlisle, Genesis, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, and many other well-known performers helped make Virgin one of the top six record companies in the world. In 1992, Branson sold Virgin Records to Thorn/EMI for slightly less than one billion dollars.

In 1984, Richard Branson entered other ventures. One of those was Virgin Atlantic Airways. While the flying has not always been smooth for Virgin, Branson believes the future of the airline is secure. “The worst is definitely over,” he says. Confident of his prediction and his ability, Branson has expanded the range of products carrying the Virgin brand. He has licensed the Virgin name for use on personal computers, and has established joint ventures to market Virgin vodka and Virgin cola.

While his business and management style embodies boundless energy –15-hour workdays are not uncommon – and a flair for the outrageous, Branson has made the time to serve as a trustee with several charitable organizations. Among these are the Healthcare Foundation, a leading charity organization instrumental in fighting AIDS through education. The Foundation has also become involved in a lobbying campaign, called “Parents Against Tobacco,” to restrict tobacco advertising and sponsorship in sports. Branson has helped to raise more than $50 million for these efforts.

What does the Virgin name mean? “We’re a company that likes to take on the giants,” Branson says with his puckish grin. “In too many businesses, the giants have had things their own way. We’re going to have a lot of fun competing with them.” It may be fun for Branson, the man with a million ideas, but perhaps not for “the giants.”