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The Virgin Knight

Sir Richard Branson's new world order: save the planet, save its people and keep an eye on things from above. Way, way above.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

(continued from page 1)

There are stories of how the headmaster at Stowe School gave his blessing to a 16-year-old Richard Branson and his parents, for Richard to drop out of school—something he'd never done before with any other student—and predicting that Branson would either become a millionaire or go to prison.

Whether business peers or business foes, budding entrepreneurs who aspire to Branson's legendary success or employees who happily take pay cuts to come work on the Good Ship Virgin, everyone seems to have a favorite story about Richard Branson. Some are about failures, some are about successes or, in the case of one of Branson's personal favorites, it involves what at first appears to be failure but winds up being wildly successful.

Contrary to what Branson groupies might like to think—and they exist in vast droves, as any recent popularity poll in the United Kingdom will tell you—the British Virgin Islands are not named after the Virgin Group and the British billionaire who founded it.

Still, fairly early on in the success of Virgin Records, Branson found himself in the BVI with a beautiful woman—Joan Templeman, who would ultimately become his wife and partner of more than 30 years and with whom he'd have two children—with inexpensive romance on his mind. Intent on wooing Joan, but cash-poor due to continually reinvesting all of the fledgling company's profits into new businesses, Branson had accepted a gratis trip down to the Caribbean under the pretense of being interested in buying an island.

After a few days of enjoying the hospitality of the real estate marketing firm that had flown them in, Branson found himself on a completely unimproved island—one large lump of volcanic rock and neckerberry bushes inhabited only by geckos—where he climbed to the top of the hill and realized that, aside from flinging his arms wide and yelling into the wind, "I'm captain of the world," he could genuinely, in real life, be captain of his own domain.

The problem was that he had no money, at least not ready cash. Student, the magazine that he'd launched after dropping out of school, had been successful for a few years before Branson realized that the real money was in taking out mail-order ads (in his own publication, natch) for record albums. The neophyte retailer—cheekily dubbing the company Virgin Records after his vast breadth of knowledge of both retailing and the music scene—then began a small chain of record stores in 1970 and, not content with his place in the music industry food chain, leveraged everything he owned in 1972 to buy an old manor house outside of Oxford, which he turned into a recording studio. Over the next couple of years, Virgin Records managed to find a few small bands and artists to sign—Branson always smiles as he tells this part of the story—with names like Mike Oldfield, the Sex Pistols, Culture Club, Simple Minds, Phil Collins, Genesis, the Eurythmics, UB40, ZZ Top, Belinda Carlisle, Janet Jackson, Peter Gabriel and, years later, the Rolling Stones.

So, successful on paper but broke, Branson found himself captivated by the allure of owning his own island and, standing there in the Caribbean sun, he took an impulsive shot. The asking price for Necker Island was £3 million; Branson offered £150,000—a sum that he would have had trouble coming up with as it was—and after sheepishly upping the offer to £200,000 to the broker's continued disgust, he was summarily flown off the island, back to his luggage, and encouraged to return to wherever he came from.

A few months later, having contacted the British lord who actually owned Necker, Branson learned that the owner was in financial straits and needed to sell; a little haggling later, including a commitment to putting infrastructure on the island within a specific period of time, and Branson had struck a deal with the owner, closing the deal for £180,000.

Still doubt that pirates don't recognize treasure when they see it? Necker Island has, in the ensuing years—and with a hefty investment by Branson—become not only a personal getaway for the Branson family but one of the most exclusive playground destinations for the rich and famous. With a weekly rental rate of $275,000, which includes the lovely collection of Cuban, Dominican and Honduran cigars available at the bar, the success of the property—now the lynchpin of what was to become Virgin Limited, a collection of luxury resorts—has spawned additional sites, including Ulusaba, a private game reserve in South Africa, and a kasbah in Morocco known as Kasbah Tamadot.

As is often the case with a Branson story, there's a second punch line to this joke. It seems that when the real estate broker summarily dismissed Branson from Necker Island following his lowball offer, Branson was also left to find his own flight home. Thoroughly disgusted with trying to get a commercial flight, and observing many others feeling the same way at the island airport in Tortola, Branson had an idea. An idea, you might say, with wings.

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