Richard Branson Virgin Group

because he's game for anything. In fact, everything.

Whatever else he may be doing at any moment (the "whatever else" here being preposterous understatement), Richard Branson is also cutting a figure.

You've seen it. There's the grin (not smile), the goatee he's worn since decades before everyone else did, the still-leonine head of hair that even at age 54 gives him the appearance of always plowing through the wind like a man on the prow of some very sweet ship. He's short, but people say you don't notice it because he never stands in one place long enough for the necessary comparisons. He's one of those fearless, twinkling guys you hear about who's always certain that the next thing -- the very next -- well, that will be something else, that'll be the best. Branson for better or worse is brio personified. Everything about him seems propelled. That figure he cuts is anything but irrelevant. The more you look, the more you realize it might be the most important of several important things about him.

Not that Branson's body of work isn't admirable. Beginning with a student newspaper at age 17 and a record label to which he signed the Sex Pistols in his mid-20s, Branson has built the Virgin Group into an international conglomerate of some 350 companies, many of them still tiny but all of them combining for more than $8 billion a year in sales. We know, of course, about Virgin's music businesses and transcontinental airline and pay-as-you-go mobile phone service -- which the company claims has become the fastest business ever to reach $1 billion in revenue. Most of us have glimpsed newscasts about Virgin Galactic, Branson's bid to take paying customers into space. And we're all soon to hear incessantly about Virgin's launch of a domestic air carrier in the United States, which Branson judges to be a miserably served market.

But how many of us know about Virgin's limousine companies and wine business and trains, and its enterprises that rent bikes, make cosmetics, operate bridal shops (Virgin Brides), run health clubs, sell holidays, offer balloon flights, and market lingerie (VirginWare -- "sleek, smooth, and sexy underwear")? Though it's hard to picture anything Branson does as being underpublicized, only 10% of Virgin's business is done in the States, so most of us here are bound to overlook the odd juice bar and manicure shop in the swelling Virgin empire. Branson can't seem to stop himself, and he doesn't appear to care how badly he gets flamed by critics (starting with the much-maligned 1984 launch of the now extravagantly successful Virgin Atlantic airline). Said one guru/academic, echoing many: "A brand can't stand for music stores, airlines, mobile phones, colas, financial services, and on and on. There's no brand on earth that can do that. That's ego."

Branson shrugs. "Yeah, I know," he says. "The conventional wisdom is you should specialize in what you know and never stray from that, but no other brand has become a way-of-life brand the way Virgin has. And it wasn't us setting out to become a way-of-life brand, it was me continually being interested in learning new things. We've got people all over the world who are coming up with great new ideas, and trying them doesn't actually cost us a lot relative to the overall size of the group." So they try. In the process Virgin has developed a business method that Branson calls "branded venture capital," whereby he starts and manages all manner of new companies under the Virgin name while partners provide most of the investment.

On the February afternoon when Branson is explaining all this by phone he happens to be sailing into Antigua, his cell connection coming and going as he rounds some headland or other and then picks his way through yachts in Nelson's Dockyard, which the seasoned Caribbean sailor will recognize as one of the partyingest of the Leeward Islands ports. Branson had Virgin colleagues aboard, and later that night would be sharing a spirited evening out with 15 or 20 of them, his notebook as ever alongside. "I keep a notebook in my pocket all the time," he says, "and I really do listen to what people say, even when we're out in a club at 3 a.m. and someone's passing on an idea in a drunken slur. Good ideas come from people everywhere, not in the boardroom.

"Anyway, it'll be a really fun evening, I'm sure," he says innocently, seeming genuinely unaware of whatever envy he might be triggering on the other end of the conversation. "I always have tried to make sure I work from an environment that's pleasant and fun. If the chairman's having fun, it's easier for everyone else.

"And if it's fun, you're going to keep going until you drop."

The afternoon's expensive floating obstacles be damned, Branson was characteristically free with his thoughts as he talked. Here are excerpts from what he said:

  • "The world is a massively more hospitable place for entrepreneurs than it was 20 years ago. In most industries it is virtually possible to think of the world as one country. All our expansion plans are overseas: China, India.... We're really not interested in a new thing unless it can become global."
  • "Even the smallest, youngest companies should not be frightened to go overseas. The opportunities in the world are immense -- China has a growth rate of 9% to 10% a year, and you should go there and participate in it and enjoy it. Enjoy it."
  • "Lavish praise on people and people will flourish; criticize people and they'll shrivel up."
  • "Give people a second chance if they screw up. Even people who have stolen from us have become, when given a second chance, incredibly loyal and valued employees. I don't know where I'd be if I hadn't been given second chances."
  • "If you can run one business well you can run any business. There just needs to be a crying-out need for you to enter the marketplace. The time to go into a business is when it's abysmally run by other people."
  • "Most of our businesses do succeed, but if something completely fails, then as long as we bow out gracefully and pay off all our debts, and nobody gets hurt, then I don't think people disrespect Virgin for trying. The public appreciates someone having a go; it appreciates the attempt. Who's been a success in life who hasn't failed?"
  • "It's important for the company's sake that the chairman not get bored."
  • "My general philosophy in life is you never really go wrong saying yes."
  • "I want Virgin to be as well known around the world as Coca-Cola."

It's that last comment that too many observers have used to sum Branson up. And yet, even the Coke comparison does him inadequate justice and risks missing the point. Coca-Cola has never opened a business to fly passengers to the moon. Nor has it expanded into online auto sales. Or railroad operations. Or any of a hundred other things Branson's appetite has led him to undertake. Will that appetite thin Virgin's brand to worthless dilution? It'll be a kick to watch and find out.

But back to that figure the man cuts, because in the end it's not the deliriously ambitious branding ploy or even the deliriously ambitious appetite that attracts us to Branson and braces us, and offers us inspiration. It's something about the figure itself, the way it is not just sensible and straightforward but steadfastly alert and delighted and fun.

When is Branson working? When is he not? It all appears so seamless and so authentically pleasing. Unlike many of our most vaunted and imitated entrepreneurs, Branson forever strikes one as not compulsive or haunted or even, strangely enough, driven -- though no one ever questions his drive. No, instead he just keeps looking like he's on the prow of that sweet boat, grinning because he knows a secret, happy because he doesn't know exactly what's next but is absolutely sure that it won't be dull and will quite possibly be a good deal better even than that.

Michael S. Hopkins

26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs

  1. Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart Omnimedia
    because she took one for the team
  2. Richard Branson, Virgin Group
    because he's game for anything. In fact, everything.
  3. Michael Dell, Dell Computer
    for being brilliantly straightforward
  4. Jim Sinegal, Costco
    because who knew a big-box chain could have a generous soul?
  5. Diane von Furstenberg, Diane von Furstenberg Studio
    for staging an elegant comeback
  6. Julie Azuma, Different Roads to Learning
    for offering hope and help to the parents of autistic children
  7. Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing
    for setting limits
  8. Ray Kurzweil, Kurzweil Technologies and other companies
    because he is Edison's rightful heir
  9. Craig Newmark, Craigslist
    for putting the free in free markets
  10. Jack Mitchell, Mitchells/Richards
    because his family business makes an art of customer service
  11. Frank Robinson, Robinson Helicopter
    for whipping an entire industry into shape
  12. Mark Melton, Melton Franchise Systems
    for giving immigrants their shot at the American Dream
  13. Michelle Cardinal & Tim O'Leary, Cmedia and Respond2
    for rewriting the rules for husband-and-wife teams
  14. Mike Lazaridis, Research in Motion
    because someone had to stand up for all those frustrated engineers
  15. Trip Hawkins, Electronics Arts and Digital Chocolate
    for still scrapping
  16. Warren Brown, Cake Love and Love Cafe
    because only in America will someone quit a secure job as a lawyer to start a bakery
  17. Muriel Siebert, Muriel Siebert & Co.
    for being a notable first with a worthy second act
  18. Chuck Porter, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky
    for verging on reckless
  19. Katrina Markoff, Vosges Haut
    for setting a completely unreasonable goal for her business
  20. Barry Steinberg & Craig Sumerel, Direct Tire and Auto Service
    for showing the power of the peer group
  21. Victoria Parham, Virtual Support Services
    for serving as a mentor to military spouses
  22. Tom LaTour, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants
    for staying at fleabag hotels so that we don't have to
  23. Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, Mitchell Gold
    for creating a true comfort zone
  24. Izzy & Coco Tihanyi, Surf Diva
    for kicking sand in the face of conventional wisdom
  25. Tony Lee, Ring Masters
    for saving 16 jobs, including his own
  26. Rueben Martinez, Libreria Martinez Books and Art Galleries
    for simultaneously building a business and nurturing Latino culture