IT IS FOUR O'CLOCK ON A JULY MORN-ing in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, and the moose are getting an eyeful. The sky is velvet black, the air is apple crisp. A black hot-air balloon, the largest ever built, towers over a ring of vacation condos. The balloon is so big you could park a Boeing 747 inside; it could lift a double-decker London bus. Propane burners on the roof of the passenger capsule blast heat into the balloon. Quartz lamps cause giant white letters on the balloon's skin to fluoresce: "FLY VIRGIN."

Soon, the craft begins to rise. There are two men inside the capsule: Per Lind-strand, the balloon's designer, and Richard Branson, a 37-year-old British entrepreneur. Richard the Lionhearted. He's a multimillionaire turned folk hero, rated in a poll of Britain's youth as the third most popular individual after Prince Charles and the Pope. (Hold on, dear boy: are we talking about Britain? You know, where self-made men rank about as high on the social scale as chimney sweeps?) Branson, chairman of a newly public company, Virgin Group PLC, is about to risk his neck on a transatlantic crossing long considered impossible for hot-air balloons.

There is reason behind this flight -- the bravado and daring mask levels of calculation and precaution lost on the international film crews and the television crew from "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," now shivering in the cold below. Because there's another way to look at this flight. That balloon may be the largest and most successful billboard ever made.

For Richard Branson, this flight is business as usual.

By American standards, Richard Branson achieved success the hard way -- starting from scratch when he was 15 years old, and with only a high-school education, he built himself an international business empire and a $320-million (about ?200-million) personal fortune.

By British standards, he's done the next to impossible.

For one thing, he built his empire during one of Britain's darkest economic hours. Venture capital was scarce. Tax rates were crippling -- the top rate on unearned personal income was a staggering 98%. Strikes routinely hobbled companies large and small. Indeed, a postal strike forced him to abort one of his earliest ventures.

More important, perhaps, Branson did it without the cultural supports that American entrepreneurs take for granted. Here, it's OK to get rich, much more than OK if you do it by starting your own company. We've turned businesspeople into super-heroes -- Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for example. Our business schools assign students class projects that later turn into multimillion-dollar enterprises. In Britain, however, the best money has been old money, or money earned in the practice of the professions. A survey commissioned by the British Venture Capital Association last year found that only 13% of executives in the United Kingdom believed people who ran their own businesses held the highest status in the country; 29% said such people had the lowest status.

So how did Richard Branson get to be such a hero?

At times his antics have shocked Britain, but overall, he's charmed the country. His continuing rebellion against the stodgy ways of the corporate establishment won him the admiration and the business of Britain's young, but also piqued the interest of the upper crust, known for its own seam of eccentricity. He's had an uncanny instinct for understanding what young people want -- he's sold cut-rate records, cut-rate air flights, and now, in one of his latest ventures, cut-rate condoms. And throughout he's let that instinct be his guide. When he sees an opportunity, he pursues it with an Andy Hardy-like ingenuousness: hey, everybody, let's put on a company!

It helps, too, that Britain's business culture is undergoing dramatic change. It's becoming all right to get rich in Britain. Maggie Thatcher says so. "He's a symptom of the ear," says Mick Brown, a London Sunday Times writer on leave to do Branson's biography. "At the same time, people can recognize in him a very English sort of sense of fair play and decency and modesty and good manners. He's that unusual combination, really, of all the things that people expect success and money to corrupt out of people."

Until lately, Branson says, entrepreneur has been a "dirty word" in Britain. "I'd perhaps like to think it's because some entrepreneurs are apt to flaunt their wealth in an ostentatious manner, which I've avoided doing." Some entrepreneurs, it turns out, means American entrepreneurs. "The stereotype of an American entrepreneur, to a lot of British people, is somebody who makes an awful lot of money, the 'Dallas' type, who rather misuses that money with big cars any yachts, basically on some massive presonal indulgence."

He is sitting now on the sun deck of a hotel at Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain, picking at a sandwich. Bad weather has postponed his flight, but he's rakishly dressed in a shiny green jumpsuit anyway. (In fact, he wears the same jumpsuit three days in a row.) He's speaking softly, periodically cupping his thumb and forefinger around his mustache and running his hand downward through his beard.

"It's important if you're successful that you set an example for the people who work for you in the way you conduct your life," he says. "You know, jumping on a train rather than jumping into a limousine, or going second class rather than first class. Little things are quite important."

Does Branson play the game as well as he talks it?

He drives a 1959 Bristol that cost him $5,000. He wears corduroys and sweaters, and claims he owns only one suit. Nonetheless, he was voted best-dressed man in Britain last year. On the day of the announcement, his mother spotted him wearing mismatched socks. No one can accuse him of selling out to the City, London's financial district -- he runs his empire from a barge on a canal in London's Little Venice, opposite old men and little boys busy fishing. And he's struggled to stay politically neutral, about as difficult to do in Britain as keeping out of the rain.

A lot of his attraction, of course, has to do with the kinds of companies he runs. Ball bearings don't get a man on the popularity charts. Branson made his first million selling discount records and expanded the business into what is now one of the hottest record companies in the world, handling such big-name artists as Julian Lennon, Phil Collins, Human League, and Culture Club. Virgin Group, which went public on The (London) Stock Exchange last year, has operations in 19 other countries including the United States, and consists of three main divisions: music, retail, and video. For the first six months (ended January 31) of fiscal 1987, the group's profit from continuing operations was ?16.1 million (about $27 million), up 30% from the same period last year; revenue was ?140.5 million (about $232 million), up 40%. Branson retains ownership of roughly 53% of the company.

But Branson also owns Voyager Group Ltd., a private company that operates night-clubs, provides holiday tours and air-freight services, and owns Branson's pride and joy, Virgin Atlantic Airways. The company, too, is growing fast -- the company's fiscal 1987 revenue was about ?75 million (some $120 million), up 50% over 1986.

Branson has also made business seem fun. Says Tessa Watts, a former employee, "Everyone thought he was completely mad." Branson has been photographed in a bubble bath holding a model Boeing 747. When the airline opened its Miami run, with the slogan "You can fly, you can fly," Branson dressed up as Peter Pan. And when Virgin was going public, its TV ad showed a pinstriped stockbroker disco-dancing around his City office. The slogan: "From the rock market to the stock market."

If Branson does have a massive personal indulgence, it's practical jokes. On April Fool's Day, 1981, Branson fed a hot exclusive to an editor of Music & Video Week, one of Britain's leading music newspapers: Virgin was starting a new business that "could mean 'the end of the record industry as we know it." Consumers would be able to use their cable-TV hookups to request any music ever recorded, simply by punching a few buttons. The newspaper ran a banner headline: "Branson's Bombshell." There was enough egg on the editor's face for a week's worth of proper English breakfasts.

His good works are as public as his pranks. Most recently, Branson started an AIDS-prevention campaign. Angered by a government program that he contends merely scared people, he started a company to market condoms at half the price of those sold under near-monopoly conditions by the London Rubber Co. The venture will use most of its profits to advertise the condoms, called Mates, spending the remainder on AIDS research and treatment. "I'd rather put more money into prevention," says Branson. "It's a case where I can use myself and may high profile with young people to get the point across."

As far as Branson's popularity goes, all this is gravy. What really made him a national celebrity were his acts of derring-do. In 1985, he set out in a speedboat to break the transatlantic speed record held for more than 30 years by the American liner United States. He failed on his first try, succeeded on his second. This was no simple act of bravado done because the ocean was there and someone had to cross it. Neither was Branson's balloon flight. Why he made the flight, how he went about it, and what happened afterward provide a case study in how Richard Branson does business.

Being a hero can be rather cost-effective, especially if you've got the soul of a refined P. T. Barnum.

Ostensibly, Branson is a shy man. Until founding his airline in 1984, he avoided the press.

He hated making speeches -- once, in the earliest days of Virgin, he stood to say a few words at a friend's wedding, then froze and leapt out the window.

But how does this jibe with balloons and boats and Peter Pan costumes? Branson says he realized simply that he had to promote the airline and applied himself to the effort as he would to any other project. Until then, he hadn't worried about promoting Virgin, because customers bought a hot recording or a hot group, not his company's record labels. But, he says, "when you're competing with TWA and Pan Am and British Airways, it's difficult to become a household name unless you actually do something out of the ordinary."

Branson didn't seek out that first major stunt, the speedboat crossing. A Cornish sailor and adventurer suggested the idea. "On a calculating basis, it made good business sense," says Branson. "On a personal basis, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Throughout my life, I've gone into ventures that have those two ingredients. I go into businesses that interest me; because they interest me, they normally end up being very profitable." The first speedboat struck submerged debris and sank just three hours short of its goal. Suddenly, Branson became a rather well-known chap. In what Britons like to think is true British fashion, Branson tried again in 1986 and succeeded.

The balloon crossing was Per Lindstrand's idea. Branson reviewed the balloonist's plan much the way he reviews any new business venture that comes his way, careful always to follow his most important business maxim: "Protect the downside."

Branson checked into Lindstrand's background and asked a helicopter company to vet his designs. Branson methodically readied himself for the flight -- "What excites me is the preparation, the learning -- learning to fly a hot-air balloon, learning to get my pilot's license, learning to sky dive, learning to become a navigator."

Virgin also played all the angles. It produced a TV documentary that aired before the flight and planned another for broadcast afterward. The first documentary did too good a job of drumming up interest in the flight and of hyping the dangers. The film, for example, showed Branson tumbling end over end, out of control, during his first parachute jump. His instructor rescued him, but at about the same time, the company's stock took its own dive, to 155 pence from 170.

The crossing was a success, albeit with a somewhat hair-raising ending. The balloon crossed the Atlantic in about one and a half days. The plan to use solar heat during the day, propane at night, worked beautifully. However, a system designed to sever the balloon from the capsule during a landing failed to work. Unable to land the craft, Branson and Lindstrand wound up leaping into the Irish Sea.

But again Branson emerged a hero. The trip, moreover, has paid off.

"The balloon project was on the front page of most newspapers in the world for a couple of days, and ran on most television stations," Branson says. "My guess is we must have had ?25 million (about $40 million) of free advertising out of that project. It was by no means my principal reason for doing it, but it's a nice by-product."

True to form, Branson is now turning the experience into a company. His new Voyager unit will include a ballooning school, balloon manufacturer, balloon holiday services -- the company holds rights to fly balloons over the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids -- and an airship company that expects to build small dirigibles. "So instead of Capital Radio in London flying a helicopter to look at the traffic, for a tenth of the price they'll be able to take one of our airships up," he says. "And obviously they've got advertising space on the side of it as well, which they wouldn't have had with a helicopter."

Airships. Half-price condoms. Balloons the size of jumbo jets. What Branson rewards most is flair. "He's very, very keen on the style with which things are done," says Robert Devereux, 32-year-old chairman of Virgin Vision, the group's video segment. "What really irritates him is when he sees things done in a humdrum way." This sense of flair makes him an especially dangerous competitor.

An example, as recalled by Stephen Navin, Virgin Vision's director of legal and business affairs:

Branson visits Ariola, the French arm of a German recording company that also handles record distribution for other companies, including, at the time, Virgin. An executive lets slip that Ariola plans to sign a singer named Julien Clerc (pronounced Claire). "So Richard rushes off into the loo and writes the name down on his hand," says Navin. "He can't speak French to save his life, so it was probably a very bad representation of how you'd actually spell Julien's name."

When he gets the chance, Branson calls the director of Virgin's own French operations and asks about this guy claire, or Cler, or whatever. He finds that Clerc is the hottest French property going. He tracks down Clerc's manager, and beats Ariola to the contract. "You couldn't call it industrial espionage," says Navin. "Call it grasping an opportunity that comes to your ears."

"Virgin has a reputation for toughness," says Nik Powell, an early partner of Branson's and now co-chairman of Palace Group of Companies Ltd., a filmmaker and distributor. He calls Branson a sharp negotiator. "His deals turn out to be extremely profitable," he says.

Branson the showman gave Virgin its high profile. Branson the manager has kept it lean and responsive, managing to do what so many U.S. entrepreneurs seem so incapable of accomplishing: delegation of power. "I'd go so far as to say that probably the greatest single reason for the success of the group is Richard's keeping out of it," says David M. Tait, the airline's executive vicepresident. "This isn't a negative comment on Richard. Just the way he locates his business gives you a clue. There's no glass-and-concrete tower, no Virgin Building with 10 floors of vice-presidents."

Branson's world headquarters is moored in Regent's Canal, squeezed tight in between boats fore and aft. It's a slender river barge called Duende, and to reach it you go through three gates and walk a concrete dill beside the canal, being careful not to trip on the sewage, water, and electrical hookups of Branson's neighbors. The neighborhood isn't exactly frenetic with interest in its resident hero. On the opposite bank, two men sit fishing in tne rain.

Branson, wearing his usual uniform of sweater and slacks, sits in a long room at the bow, which is paneled with knotty pine and banded with windows. Most of one wall is taken up by a bank of video and stereo equipment and a cabinet housing an eclectic collection of books, including Hashish and Dr. Ruth's Guide to Good Sex.

Working here, he says, he's found he can avoid interruptions and at the same time give his officers a greater sense of autonomy. The rest of his London operation is spread out in some 25 buildings, including townhouses, a warehouse, and a converted bathhouse, none of them with more than 80 employees.

"People always want to deal with the top person in a building," he says. With his companies so spread out, the ranking executive in each structure becomes the power center, "so somebody besides me takes complete responsibility. He becomes chairman of that company. He can make all the decisions. And I can be left to push the group forward into new areas."

Clearly, this means Branson's got to pick people who can handle the responsibility. "His ability to hire the right people to take him to the next stage of development has been nothing short of extraordinary," says Peter Hilliar, leisure stock analyst with Barclays de Zoete Wedd, in London.

He relies heavily on a core group of senior executives -- his "generals" -- whom he considers close friends. Some have been with the company almost from the start. Simon Draper, a group director and chairman of the music division, is a distant relative who joined Virgin in 1971 after emigrating from South Africa. Ken Berry, managing director of the music division, joined two years later. "We can trust each other," Branson says. "They know I won't let them down, and vice versa. It's almost like a marriage." In fact, Virgin Vision's Robert Devereux, who joined the company in 1981, is married to one of Branson's sisters.

Branson further binds the ties with shares in the company or its units. When the company recently hired two senior American record executives to run its newly founded Virgin Records America, in Beverly Hills, Calif., each was given a 10% stake in that unit. Simon Draper, who once held 20% of Virgin Records, swapped that for a 15% stake of the Virgin Group. "Now he's one of the 50 richest people in Britain," says Branson. "Quite a few people should become millionaires working within the Virgin structure."

Branson keeps in touch with the doings of the company largely through informal meetings and phone calls -- none of his generals can recall getting a formal memo. Before coming to the barge this morning, Branson says, he spent two hours on the phone with Devereux. He'd had dinner the night before with Draper. He planned to have a session with Trevor Abbott, the Virgin Group's finance director, the next day. "It's an almost unending stream of calls," says Abbott. "He's very impulsive. If he thinks of something, he wants to do it right then."

For a few years Branson worked in the music division's main office alongside Simon Draper, but as the top man in the place, Branson drew all the daily flak. That's when he returned to the barge for good -- "and found things worked fine without me."

Not so. Things improved.

Branson's early involvement made work exciting, says Draper, "but it also made it too haphazard. What he fed off was the day-to-day instant buzz. Once he let go of the company a little bit, it found a more even keel, and he could take a longer-term view. It worked better. And I think he learned from that." He cites the example of Virgin Atlantic Airways: "Once he started the airline, he didn't interfere."

Branson, who'd always admired Sir Freddie Laker, launched Virgin Atlantic to provide discount flights between Newark and London's Gatwick airports. (It now has flights to Miami as well, and is studying expansion to Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City.)

The airline bears Branson's stamp. First, he protected the downside. He worked out a deal with Boeing under which Virgin, should the airline fail, could sell back its first 747 within three years -- at a price set out in the initial agreement. That protected the group from major losses.

Second, Branson shunned many of the usual approaches to airline operation and came up with his own innovations. On its daytime flights, for example, the airline sometimes barters seats for entertainment -- a cellist may perform one day, a mime the next, mimes being just about perfect because they don't make a lot of noise. And the airline offers only two classes -- economy and business -- the most notable perk of the latter class being limousine rides to and from the airports.

Finally, once the line was airborne, Branson backed off. He contends that his role as chairman is to get the company into new ventures and take full responsibility for all associated risks, while leaving his established operations in the hands of experienced managers. Branson, in a British mangement journal, wrote: "Don't depend on others to do the diversification and to take the risk. But do depend on others to do the job they know."

Branson immersed himself in the airline for nearly three months, from late March until the first flight took off in mid-June. "Richard knew nothing about airlines, the same way he knew nothing about records," says David Tait. "He's sometimes like a little child. He's always asking why. We'd say, 'Well, Richard, we've got to do such and such in this particular way.' He'd say, 'Why?" Now, Branson's the "invisible man," Tait says. "This week he might spend an hour thinking about the airline, next week he might spend two days on it, then you might not seek him again for three weeks."

Branson hopes to succeed with his airline, where Freddie Laker failed, by keeping the airline small. Currently it has two 747s flying the transatlantic routes and two old propeller-powered Viscounts for a secondary route to Maastricht, Holland. Laker's airline got too big, he contends. Expansion, Branson says, "is extremely dangerous in the airline business," especially when the airline is your only business.

Which for him is decidedly not the case.

Branson counts about 100 companies in his empire, all of them small -- and kept that way deliberately. "When a company gets to a certain size, instead of letting it grow bigger and bigger and putting it into bigger and bigger offices, I will take, say, the assistant marketing manager, the assistant managing director, the assistant sales manager, and I'll say, 'Right -- you're now the marketing manager, the managing director, the sales manager of a new company."

As Virgin Records grew, for example, it divided itself into new record companies. "We've now got five record companies," Branson says. "That gives us a lot of advantages. They can concentrate on new bands instead of getting cluttered up with tons and tons of artists." This, he says, keeps the companies in closer touch with bands and the tastes of the market, and can improve each company's chances of having radio stations play its new releases. "It costs us more on switchboards and telex machines, but I definitely believe it works better."

Branson's greatest weakness as a manager, according to his generals, is his hatred of confrontation. He'll sidestep obstreperous employees, as he did with the editor of Event, a London entertainment-listings magazine Virgin started in 1981 that folded six months later. The editor stood up to Branson, says Simon Draper: "That is, he was not a yes man. There wasn't that magic. If you say no to Richard too many times, just because you're being perverse, he really goes off it." Branson skirted the first editor and, in effect, appointed a second, duplicate editor. "Of course, it caused the most appalling conflicts," says Draper. "Those two fought like mad." The magazine failed mostly because an existing entertainment magazine had suddenly changed course, filling the niche Event was supposed to fill.

"I'm not one to waste energy and time having arguments," says Branson. "Perhaps that's a fault. Maybe sometimes just to sit down and have a confrontation, to sort of clear the air, would be the better thing to do."

Branson would rather spend his time exploring new business ideas, or promoting companies he already owns. "He's a natural showman," says David Tait. "He loves to shock." Indeed, it was that most shocking affair of the Sex Pistols that really thrust Virgin Records into the major leagues. "I must confess it horrified my wife," says Edward Branson, Richard's father, a retired metropolitan magistrate, his expression becoming somewhat pained.

"It's not a part of Richard's life that I'm proud of."

First, a spot of history. As his father remembers it, Branson began his first venture when he was about 11 or 12 years old. He planted a thousand seedlings and then went back to school convinced he'd make a killing selling Christmas trees. Rabbits ate the trees. About a year later he tried again, planning this time to sell budgerigars -- small, fiercely reproductive parrots. Branson steadfastly contends that rats ate this venture. Eve Branson, his mother, says she simply let the birds go.

No one's certain where Branson got his entrepreneurial drive. British culture certainly didn't encourage it, and there were no national role models. His parents contend he may have felt some responsibility for the family's welfare. "The fact that we never had any money was a very good thing," says Eve Branson. "I think he felt deep down he wanted a way to help the family. I think he felt reponsible for his sisters." The answer, however, may lie in the fact that Branson as a boy loved sports -- and probably would have pursued a sports career if he hadn't badly injured one of his knees. Could it be he's simply projecting the same drive into business? "He likes playing the game for the sake of playing the game," says Simon Draper. "He competes hard because he enjoys competition."

At 15, Branson started a magazine called Student and did his dealing from a telephone booth at his boarding school. His parents thought he was starting a school magazine -- until he went to London to sell advertising space. "He was so enthusiastic it seemed a pity just to stop it like that," Edward Branson says. "I thought it would be rather a good thing for him to learn the difficulties, as he only had ?100 in the world. I thought he'd very quickly be forced to stop it." The first issue sold 50,000 copies.

At 17, Branson quit school to run Student full-time. Soon afterward, he started a mail-order company, selling records at discounted prices -- the first person to take advantage of a new law allowing the practice. A postal strike stopped the enterprise cold. Branson wasn't deterred. He opened a discount-record shop over a shoe store in Oxford Street. Other stores followed.

Branson picked the name Virgin because he had no experience running a business. Virgin Records quickly diversified into providing recording services for bands and, in 1973, produced and issued the first of its own original records, Tubular Bells, by Mike Oldfield. Virgin sold more than 5 million copies of the record, part of which was included in the soundtrack for The Exorcist. Virgin, however, still hadn't shaken its image as an oblique, hippie recording company.

Then the Sex Pistols came along, and punk went mainstream. Safety pins turned into jewelry. Hair turned orange. Britain's adult population wanted to see the Pistols shot. For the young, however, the group was the power and the glory. And Branson knew that he wanted the group's contract.

He called EMI, which had previously signed the group, and told its chairman that he'd be glad to take the Sex Pistols off his hands. The chairman declined.

Those were the days when four-letter words were four-letter words, and one night in December 1976, during a live TV interview, Johnny Rotten and the rest of the band used a few, egged on by their host, Bill Grundy, at the time Britain's Johnny Carson. Adult Britain was convulsed with anger. One viewer reportedly kicked his foot through his screen. "THE FILTH AND THE FURY," screamed The Daily Mail in the next morning's edition.

At seven that morning, EMI's chairman summoned Branson. EMI had decided to dump the Sex Pistos. In a bidding war, though, another recording company signed the group. But within hours of the signing ceremony, the Sex Pistols became upset and trashed the record company's offices. Available yet again, the Sex Pistols next signed with Branson. "Richard loved them from the moment they started to cause this notoriety," says Simon Draper. "He just thought it was the most wonderful thing. They were his kind of group -- it was total media wonderfulness." The Sex Pistols drew other bands to Virgin, and soon Virgin amassed a roster of talent, including Boy George and Culture Club. "There's no question that it firmly put Virgin on the map," says Draper.

And started Branson on the road to hero-hood.

By sheer coincidence -- although with Branson, one can't be sure -- a barge comes by draped with a red banner that reads UK 2000, a job-development organization that Thatcher's government last year asked Branson to chair. Branson's barge shudders as the wake pushes it against the canal bank.

There are 3 million people out of work in Britain, some 11% of the nation's work force -- about three times the total of unemployed in May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher first took office as prime minister. UK 2000 can't solve the problem, says Branson. What Britain needs is more Virgins: "Entrepreneurism should be encouraged, because it's where the future Virgins are going to come from."

These days it's a lot easier for entrepreneurs in Britain to do what Branson did. And Thatcher is largely responsible. Her re-election last June is widely seen as a demonstration that her "popular capitalism" is gaining popular support and that the country's overall business climate is improving. Since 1979, she's battled the unions and sharply curtailed their power to demonstrate. She started a broad campaign to privatize British industry, a nationwide garage sale that put control of some of Britain's largest corporations into the hands of private shareholders -- such companies as British Telecom, British Airways, and Jaguar. In 1980, Britain's Unlisted Securities Market opened, making it much easier for companies to raise money and reap the rewards of ownership. And venture capital is easier to come by. There are more venture firms, and they are investing more of their money in United Kingdom firms, 42% more in 1986 than in 1985.

But Britain has a way to go yet, Branson says. For example, take Britain's banking system. "It's extremely conservative and very unadventurous," he says. "American and German banks are much more adventurous." Indeed, Britain's favorite son and most celebrated entrepreneur does the greater part of his company's banking through American banks. And Britain needs to have far more new companies before the economy can begin reabsorbing the masses of people out of work. "What we're still lacking in Britain is masses of new acorns sprouting up everywhere to be the oak trees of the future," says Branson.

Acorns? Oak trees?

Sometimes the things Branson says sound like lines from an old Robin Hood script. Sometimes you expect to hear a distant boys' choir singing "God Save the Queen." Is this guy too good to be true? "Having been around him for a while," says Mick Brown, the biographer, "I think he does have a kind of knack that's natural -- that what you see is what you get."

Branson's generals worry that Britain may be seeing him too often -- that maybe he's worn one too many funny suits. Heaven forbid that Branson should become, well, boring. "I think Richard's coming to a stage now where there's almost a reaction of, 'Oh no, not Branson again. What's he into now?" says Tait. "No one would be surprised in this country if one morning they go to open their eggs and there's Richard's face emblazoned on the end of each."

Branson steps from a car at Lake Heron, outside London, where he is to be guest of honor at an international competition for disabled water-skiers. People start moving toward him. A boy repeatedly takes his picture and follows at an awestruck distance. An elderly Frenchman sidles up holding out his program: "I have a grandchild. She is beautiful. I wonder . . ." Branson, of course, autographs the program for him. The man shuttles away, beaming.

Midway through the ceremony, the MC summons Branson ("a household name!") to the podium. It's not hard to pick Branson out, as he's the only man in three rows of chairs not wearing a suit.

In his talk, Branson tells the audience that he became president of the association of disabled water skiers after seeing how waterskiing bolstered the morale of a handicapped Virgin employee. Lest things get morbid, he quickly switches gears.

"I don't feel I'm dressed quite appropriately. So I think I'll have to change that." He strips down to a black 1930s-style bathing suit.

The crowd loves it. The MC, exultant, shouts: "No one ever knows what he'll do next!"

Branson dons a life vest and boats off to the far side of the lake, then comes skiing back between two women, each of whom has lost a leg to cancer. They skim past a boat top-heavy with reporters and photographers.

"And now, here's Action Man himself," the MC cries. "Another big hand -- he is something special." He lingers on that last word.

Branson and the two women finish their spin around the lake, then glide in and float just offshore. Someone passes them a bottle of champagne and three glasses. With the glasses in hand, the two women take turns kissing Richard Branson on the cheeks.

Branson grins at all the cameras aimed in his direction and then quips, "All right -- both cheeks, please!" Both women kiss him at once.

The shutters click.