Saturday, September 13, 2008

Richard Branson: 'Brown bottled out of selling Northern Rock - he was scared of me', by Petronella Wyatt - The Daily Mail - 12th September 2008

Sir Richard Branson lopes into the lobby of my New York hotel, looking like a triumphant, if shabby, Lion King.

Britain's most famous and favourite tycoon has unkempt yellow hair of a hue I have never seen on a human, and a mismatching straggly beard.

He is wearing a blue denim shirt (with a bare chest), an enormous Brite-Smile grin and scuffed running shoes.

Branson, whose every move is accompanied by a fanfare of publicity, likes to give the impression he is always on the go.

'Sorry for being late,' he says (an hour, actually). I refrain from telling him that he is like one of his Virgin Trains, which were launched in 1997 and still do not run on time.

Branson likes to portray himself as a heroic crusader of British business, using his trusty Virgin sword to rescue beloved institutions like our railways, airlines and more recently Northern Rock, though he failed in his bid to take it over when the Government chose to nationalise.

There has also been Virgin Music, Virgin Media and, less successfully, Virgin Cola and Virgin condoms. Not content with his high-profile career as a businessman, Branson enjoys setting world records.

In the Eighties he nearly won the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing in a powerboat, but was denied because he also broke the rules.

He successfully repeated the attempt in a balloon, after nearly drowning and being rescued by an RAF helicopter.

Today, he has just disembarked from a boat on the Hudson river, where he announced he would be making his first record-breaking attempt in ten years - the fastest transatlantic crossing in a sailing boat, accompanied by his children Holly, 26, and Sam, 22.

I ask Branson if, at 58, he isn't a little too old for these stunts? If he wants to cross the Atlantic, why doesn't he book himself a ticket on one of his planes? He reminds me of the ageing Indiana Jones; the spirit is there but the body is a little creaky.

'I'm extremely fit,' he says, aggrieved, shaking his mane with its odd, satsuma-coloured streaks.

Branson, who is perched on a sofa, flexes his arm muscles and for one terrifying moment I am afraid that, to prove his point, he will turn me upside down.

He is renowned for his love of pranks, which include up-ending unsuspecting females.

In March, he angered the Indian press after he turned Bollywood actress Neha Dhupia upside down.

'Why do you turn women upside down?' I inquire. 'Do you think they look better that way?' For a man who purports to love jokes, he doesn't relish being teased. 'That's a ridiculous question. But why do I do it?' He pauses. 'I mean break records that is. Let me tell you. . . er . . . let me think.'

Despite his undoubted talent, Branson is not a fluent conversationalist. He continually drops pronouns and conjunctives - as well as names such as Mandela, Bill Clinton and Kate Moss, all of whom have stayed with him on Necker, his private island in the Caribbean.

Referring to the forthcoming Atlantic sailing challenge, he says: 'I felt ready for another adventure and I wanted to do it with my children. This is the fastest boat ever made. I am anxious to see what I am capable of.'

If the truth be told, it is more a question of what others are capable of. When I press him he admits there will be 24 crew. Branson likes to give the impression that he is always Richard, the champion of the little man.

In his entertaining memoir, Business Stripped Bare, he describes his failed attempt to save Northern Rock, the British bank which collapsed in 2007.

'I wanted to take this great institution and turn it into a brilliantly successful concern called Virgin Bank,' he tells me, impressively, as if he expects a round of applause.

For a time it looked as if Gordon Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling favoured his bid. Then suddenly, the Government announced it had decided on nationalisation. Branson makes much of being a genial cove who doesn't bear grudges. But Northern Rock appears to be an exception.

His voice takes on the cold steeliness of a hitman. 'I was led to believe the Government definitely wanted to see Northern Rock privatised. So, yes, we did think, as we had the best proposal, that we would get it.'

Branson says he heard the news of the Government's change of heart on Necker - on television. 'I was flabbergasted that they had decided to nationalise. It was Old Labour rearing its head. We were under a very different impression.'

He blames the 'lack of courage' displayed by Brown and Darling.

'Brown was more concerned with tomorrow's news than jobs. He didn't care about saving a great British institution. Brown bottled out. He was scared of the prospect of me, a capitalist, turning the bank around.'

Does he still speak to Alistair Darling? Branson snorts.

'Alistair Darling didn't even have the courtesy to ring and tell me of their decision! I expected the courtesy of a call, especially as they promised me that if they decided to nationalise they would let me know first. Then I heard rumours that the BBC was about to break the news.

So I rang Darling. It was tense. As we were talking, the news broke on the TV. Unbelievable! Then I got a call from Gordon Brown telling me to move on and not to make a nuisance of myself about the decision.

'It was a tragic error,' he continues. 'I would have created thousands of new jobs, but instead it has been made to disappear. It will haunt this Government and those who follow it.'

Branson's immediate reaction, understandably, was to go out on a bender.

'I decided to get very drunk. I think it was ten tequila slammers. I had the most terrible hangover.'

Despite his international lifestyle, Branson has always looked for favours from British governments. He was knighted for services to business in 1999. But there have been concerns about some of his practices.

The tycoon, who owns the largest group of private companies in Britain (there are more than 200 Virgin enterprises), spends most of his time on Necker, the island he bought in 1979, and in America, seldom visiting his Oxfordshire mansion.

His empire is owned by a complicated series of offshore trusts and companies, while his wealth is calculated at £4billion. If he were to liquidate his assets he would pay relatively little in tax. There is also an incident brought up by Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable, during the Northern Rock affair.

In 1971, aged 21 and shortly after he founded Virgin Records, he was arrested and charged with tax evasion. Branson paid the unpaid tax and fines, though his mother, Eve, had to re-mortgage the family home.

I ask him if he pays taxes.

'From the age of 15, I enjoyed paying English taxes - I mean I didn't enjoy it, but I paid them.' He says of his tax evasion in 1971 that he didn't realise it was illegal. 'But, yes, now I prefer to live on Necker and in the U.S..'

But in his book he claims that money is not an important part of being an entrepreneur, adding that creativity is the measure by which businessmen should be judged.

So why has he become a tax exile, which has made him even richer? 'It enables me to give more to charity.'

Branson's charitable contributions are always to trendy, luvvie causes, such as Aids and climate change, and are announced, like everything else to the sound of trumpets. I point out that lots of philanthropists have given away more money with less publicity.

His book is full of good deeds he has done in collusion with people such as the Dalai Lama, Tony Blair and pop star Peter Gabriel. Branson looks at the floor as if he has dropped a name and left it there.

'I have a responsibility as a wealthy person to help the world,' he huffs. Yet as the same time as espousing the Green movement with his Virgin Earth Challenge he has a carbon footprint the size of a yeti.

While liking to be seen sitting with his customers in Virgin economy class, he makes use of the ultimate executive jet, a Falcon 900, and he even owns a spaceship. Virgin Galactic intends to send the very rich and very bored into space in 2009.

There is a period of flannelling before Branson embarks on an outrageous piece of sophistry. (I find he often uses this ruse when faced with an unpalatable truth.)

'Oh, er, I don't have a Falcon jet. I just rent one. Yes I know my planes produce carbon dioxide but I am trying to do something about it.'

Branson is a tangle of contradictions. He is either capable of incredible self-delusion or shameless fibs. He claims to be very shy. Yet is more addicted to publicity than Michael Winner. Is this becoming of a man who last year made Time magazine's list of the 'Top 100 most influential people in the World.'

He has dressed up as a Zulu warrior, Elvis, a bride and cavorted in his underpants - to promote Virgin's entry into the condom market. Last year, he jumped off a building in Las Vegas to publicise Virgin flights.

In his book he attacks the culture of celebrity, yet his career has been one long photo-opportunity. 'I am really shy,' he insists. Then is he a masochist? 'I have to do it. It's the only way to keep the business going.' Really? Did Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates jump off a building or strip down to their underpinnings?

Branson bares his teeth, which are too big for his mouth and look as though they are in danger of taking on independent life.

'I have been building a global brand - the best-known British global brand in the world,' he says, suddenly losing his shyness, 'In order to put it on the map I used myself.

'It wasn't easy, but when I began, Freddie Laker [the late founder of Laker Airways] told me I didn't have the money for proper advertising, so I should do it all personally.'

I point out that by the late Eighties, when Virgin Atlantic had become a remarkable success, he could have adopted a more retiring persona. Yet he went on to make appearances, as himself, on TV shows such as Friends, and in the films Superman Returns and Casino Royale. I say it must have been torture. Branson fails to find this amusing.

He is more volatile than he would like his admirers to know. After he lost his 2000 Lottery bid he burst into tears in front of guests at what would have been a celebratory party. He became so aggressive he had to be restrained by one of his staff.

On one occasion, I am told, he visited a heavily pregnant friend in hospital and suggested they play a board game called Frustration. When Branson started losing, he jumping up and down in a fury.

There are also tales of his mistreating staff. Behind the Santa Claus beard is a ruthless personality. His socalled 'pranks' can be cruel.

Last year, he spitefully turned on the hapless Paris Hilton when she announced in advance she was attending his son's 21st Mad Hatter birthday party dressed as Alice in Wonderland. Branson told all the waitresses to dress in Alice costumes and when Hilton arrived ordered her to fetch people drinks. For a man who professes to be sensitive, he seems to have little sensitivity for others. ' People are too self-important. I can't imagine I have ever offended anyone.'

As for his alleged hatred of celebrity, he finally admits: 'I don't regret being famous. I can retreat to Necker and pull up the drawbridge. If I am in New York, I am in the spotlight. When people want my autograph, I will happily oblige,' he says rather loudly.

A small group has gathered in the lobby, but, to his obvious chagrin, no one seems to want his autograph. He turns up the decibels: 'I can pick up the phone to anyone I want to in the world and get through!'

'Even the Pope?' I say mischievously. 'Did you try to sell him Virgin condoms?' Branson continues, barking like an angry walrus. 'I can get things done.'

I wonder if his family is embarrassed by his behaviour? His background is solidly middle class. His grandfather, Sir George Branson, was a Privy Councillor, while his father, Edward, was a lawyer. He attended the exclusive Stowe School, but left at 15.

His wife Joan, whom he married in 1989, when their daughter, Holly, was eight, is long-suffering. He arrived at their Necker wedding hanging from a helicopter with a box of Milk Tray in his hands. 'The stupid pilot dropped me in the shallows, so I hobbled around on sticks during the service.'

Branson has also admitted to taking drugs, having an 'overpowering weakness for women' and being a member of the Mile High Club.

'Well, that happened before Joan. The trouble was that the plane lavatory was too small for prolonged sex. Putting double beds on Virgin planes is certainly something we aim to do. If people can do it in their house or on cruise ships, why not in the air - and it's much more exciting.

'I do have this weakness for women. Joan is smart enough to use a long leash. I am allowed to flirt and play, but nothing too serious. It works well. She is right to give me freedom to have good friends, or it could end in divorce.'

I wonder if he sees Virgin - the appellation came about because he was a virgin to business when he created his first company - as his personal fiefdom and is more Sheriff of Nottingham than Robin Hood?

'Look, I always take on the big guys. I stand up to the powerful, like I did in my early campaign against British Airways.'

But who stands up to you? I ask. He brushes me away, back on his soapbox. 'Our treasured institutions, the railways, Northern Rock - I want to save them. Virgin is built on taking on the Goliaths. I will always fight and fight.'

Branson looks positively messianic. Is this why he has a beard?

'No. It was because at 15 I got too lazy to shave.' Then he is off again. 'I don't regret anything. Anything at all. My life has been brilliant.'

Whatever his failings, Branson does not lack self-belief. When I say that even Mussolini managed to get the trains to run on time, he says it is not his fault, but blames the 'poor infrastructure' he inherited.

Sir Richard Branson will never admit to any kind of frailty. Perhaps it would tarnish his shining image as the most loveable, celebrated and prolific entrepreneur de nous jours?

We finish our interview and he smiles ingratiatingly at a blonde woman sitting nearby. 'I think she's recognised me,' he says.

Business Stripped Bare by Richard Branson is published by Virgin Books on 18 September at £20. To order a copy for £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.

(Credit: The Daily Mail)

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