Despite an abundance of business concerns and eccentric hobbies, Sir Richard Branson still finds time for a quiet family getaway

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 October, 2000, 12:00am

It is rare for people to doze off at one of Sir Richard Branson's notoriously wild shindigs. But at the Virgin Atlantic boss' latest bash, party-goers were actively encouraged to kick off their shoes, lie on the airline's new full-length bed and have a short snooze.

Staff flown in from Hong Kong and Shanghai for the extravaganza were probably most in need of a nap, after a 12-hour overnight flight from Asia followed by a day of meetings and an early-evening agenda which included champagne cocktails, a lavish international buffet and rock bands.

At Virgin events, fun always appears to take precedence over dull speeches by men in suits.

Sir Richard's introduction at this particular gathering was as brief as it was precise: 'Right. Let's party.'

That is the public face of the British entrepreneur.

But later, clutching a glass of champagne which was clearly not the first of the evening, the airline boss switched to statistics mode within seconds.

'The route from Shanghai to London is finally starting to come good,' said Sir Richard, who personally launched the four-times-weekly service last year.

'It has taken a while, but we were convinced it would work. A recent change in the British visa rules makes it easier for Chinese to visit.

'It helps that the Asian economies are coming around. The daily Hong Kong flights are now booming again.'

Although Sir Richard is enthusiastically promoting the airline's new full-length bed, the boss is unlikely to be found slumbering under a Virgin Atlantic duvet when he travels.

'I am usually quite active on flights,' he says. 'I am usually on my feet talking to the passengers and the crew and making notes. There are always little things you can find out this way, problems that can be overcome.

'We are always open to good ideas. The in-flight massage service began from a suggestion by my wife's beauty therapist. That was 10 years ago. Now we have 200 therapists flying and beauty salons in airport lounges.'

The hyperactive tycoon, whose companies have a combined turnover of more than HK$30 billion, is also renowned for daredevil sporting ventures such as hot-air ballooning around the world and crossing the Atlantic Ocean by power boat.

In a recently released autobiography, inevitably entitled Losing My Virginity, the adventurer explains why he takes such life-threatening risks.

'Apart from the thrill of the actual event, I love the preparation for it,' he said. 'A tremendous sense of camaraderie is built up within the team when we are preparing a challenge.

'I love my family but another part of me is driven to try new adventures and to push myself to my limits. If I had refused to contemplate skydiving, hot-air ballooning or crossing the Atlantic in a boat I think my life would have been the duller for it.

'There used to be a great many British explorers, all in the best tradition of Scott of Antarctica, and I feel proud to follow in their footsteps.'

It was clear that the young Richard Branson was not cut out for an academic career, leaving school with no worthwhile qualifications. An astute headmaster predicated that Branson would either go to jail or become a millionaire.

The first Branson company offered cut-price records by mail order, a business run from a back room. Funds from that success allowed Virgin to begin its own entertainment venture, signing Mike Oldfield, whose Tubular Bells album became a mega-hit worldwide.

Later acts included controversial punk rockers the Sex Pistols, cross-dressing singer Boy George and pop tunesmith Phil Collins.

When he turned his attention to the airline industry, Sir Richard retained the showbiz touches, naming one plane after Princess Diana and inviting her to launch it. Virgin passengers watched the latest-release (uncensored) movies, were served ice-cream during intermissions and - for business class ticket-holders - offered rides to the airport by powerful motorcycle or luxury limousine.

The boss, 50 this year, is known for participating in daft stunts to drum up attention.

For the Shanghai launch, the chairman dressed up in a red mandarin jacket and pedalled a rickshaw through city streets carrying a pair of pretty Virgin flight attendants; when the first Virgin plane touched down in New Delhi, he emerged from the cabin dressed in a pink gown topped by a spiffy turban.

Sir Richard's family bolt-hole from the hoopla is a personally owned Caribbean island, Necker, bought for a song some 20 years ago, where he goes to wind down with wife Joan and teenage children Sam and Holly.

'It is like a jewel,' he said. 'When we go there, we pull up the drawbridge and relax. We always have fantastic holidays there. My favourite time of day is sunset, watching the lights fade and the stars come out.'

This year is likely to see Sir Richard travelling regularly to the other side of the world, where the Australian domestic carrier Virgin Blue was recently launched.

'We have lots of new ventures and we enjoy shaking up the bigger companies,' said Sir Richard.

'We enjoy what we are doing and I don't think everyone can say that about their job or business.

'Finding the right people to run the businesses is the key - and then giving them the freedom to make mistakes as well as the good things. The reason people leave companies is generally frustration and not being given freedom.'