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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.