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by Kaya Morgan

As one of the richest men in the world, Richard Branson is also one of the most fascinating. A man of many facets, his public persona as a warm, friendly, idealistic, family man seems in sharp contrast to the highly competitive, workaholic who considers himself a tough negotiator in business dealings. While many entrepreneurs make their fortunes by focusing on doing one thing extremely well, Branson has taken his own brand of basic business model, recreating it again and again, to manufacture a series of highly successful business ventures.

It is hard to imagine how an establishment-born individual could have such unconventional views and libertarian causes; the founder of a mega-music company have such little knowledge of music; the quiet man who shies away from public speaking could be such a supreme promoter and media master; or, how a man so deeply committed to fair play would fiercely negotiate for the last benefit in a business deal? Certainly, Branson is the supreme enigma.

The eldest and only boy of three children, much of his core beliefs probably originate from growing up in what appears to have been a socially advanced family, way ahead of its time. Although father, Ted, followed in his father's, high court judge, footsteps assuming the career of a barrister, Branson's mother, Eve, was a wildly independent woman who broke all the rules.

Eve pursued her love of theatre at an early age, eventually dancing in a stage production, well known for extremely gorgeous showgirls. When wartime came and work was scarce, she finagled her way into the Royal Air Force training as a glider pilot, then instructor, where she had to secretly pretended to be a boy by lowering her voice, and wearing a leather jacket and helmet to cover her hair. Later, as a flight attendant for British South American Airways, Eve was one of the first to fly the arduous marathon flights over the Andes in the days when cabins were not pressurized and oxygen masks were required.

The Branson family was a close-knit team where everyone was treated as equals. Today, one of Richard's key ingredients to success is his commitment to his people. He believes in promoting from within, thereby providing career opportunities to his staff that might not otherwise be available to them. Even in tough economic times, layoffs are unheard of at Virgin despite employing over twenty thousand people. Everyone from aunts, uncles, cousins, childhood friends, immediate family, even former girlfriends and wives has all been brought into the company's business activities.

Branson has gone to great lengths to create a fun working atmosphere that people would enjoy being a part of rather than simply a place to earn a paycheck. He is a staunch believer in open communication being the key to a stronger infrastructure where everyone is devoted to the overall excellence of the company. This is evidenced by a monthly letter to employees in which he provides much of the details of Virgin's future plans, along with his home address and telephone number for any ideas, suggestions or problems that might arise. He also prefers to make his managers minority stockholders in Virgin's new ventures as they unfold, trusting them with full authority, and is proud to have created new multimillionaires from within his own organization.

One important element in Branson's success is his belief in delegation. His Virgin record company, now divested, was a perfect example of how he organizes his many ventures. Although Virgin Records may have been a collection of many smaller entities, cumulatively, it was the largest independent record company in the world. When any one entity got too big, Branson would take some of the middle management, create a new affiliate company, promoting them to senior management, allowing them remain in close proximity to clients, suppliers, distributors and support staff while giving them greater incentive to perform.

Another important aspect of his success is diversification. Branson doesn't believe in acquisitions. He does believe in building new companies from the ground up, giving 100% involvement during the startup phase, then delegating the ongoing operations to the new management. The Virgin conglomerate now encompasses balloon flights, motorcycles, airlines, trains, books, a bridal emporium, cars, cinemas, cosmetics, credit cards, drinks, gas and electricity, limousines, mega-retail stores, finance, Internet service provider and digital radio broadcasting. And Branson's not afraid of a good fight. He has successfully taken on giants like British Airways and Coca Cola looking to reduce their monopoly and capture just a portion of their market. It seems that it's the challenge that keeps Branson alive and on his toes — the thrill of the hunt, so to speak.

He ardently disavows having a death wish, but freely admits to having looked death in the eye on more than a few occasions. There have been close calls during his ballooning adventures, accidentally taking off in a plane he did not know how to fly, and mistakenly ejecting a parachute rather than pulling the rip cord — all nightmarish moments he would rather not repeat. But has it cooled his spirit of adventure — absolutely not!

Voted the most popular businessman in the United Kingdom, Branson's commitment to altruistic causes is as great as his commitment to his business ventures. He is involved in a multitude of charitable and humanitarian foundations including AIDS research, help for unemployed teenagers, Parents Against Tobacco and he even used his own aircraft to rescue people trapped by the Gulf War.The personal challenges he sets for himself keep him actively engaged in a number of record-breaking land and air, speed and distance attempts — crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the fastest recorded time ever; as the first hot air balloon to ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the largest ever flown at 2.3 million cubic feet capacity, reaching speeds in excess of 130 mpg; crossing the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Arctic Canada, the furthest distance of 6,700 miles, once again breaking all existing records with speeds of up to 245 mph.

This devil-may-care, modern day buccaneer with lion-like appearance is an effective business leader fiercely devoted to expanding the Virgin empire. Knowing his persistence and competitive nature, one day we just might wake up to a Virgin world — if Richard Branson has anything to say about it.

You can find more about the Virgin Empire, go to

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