ONE of the stories Richard Branson's employees like to tell about their boss is the raid he led a few years ago against arch rival British Airways dressed as a pirate, armed with a cutlass and stuffed parrot on his shoulder. The target was a half-sized model of a BA supersonic Concorde which graces the exit tunnel at London's Heathrow airport. Branson and his party covered the tail with the Virgin livery and replaced the BA advertising boards with their own proclaiming 'this is now Virgin territory'. The raid came at the end of a five-year battle by Virgin Atlantic, the airline Branson started from scratch in 1984, to get into Heathrow. It also spelt the end of BA's five-year battle to try and keep Branson, the man former BA chairman Lord King once described as a pirate, out of Heathrow.As one employee put it: 'The nice thing about Richard is that he believes in fair play and words like give up or quit simply are not in his vocabulary. He also thinks business in general takes itself too seriously.' Indeed, Branson is not the typical self-made millionaire. He dropped out of school at 17 and went into business the following year and has never looked back. Said to be the 16th richest man in Britain he was described by Vanity Fair as 'practically a national hero' ... a David who has taken on Goliath more times than he cares to remember and won. His most recent encounter with the 'world's favourite airline' was last year which cost BA more than stg 610,000 in libel damages and a public apology from Lord King. It makes Branson's recent flitter with local carrier Cathay Pacific over ''competitive'' time slots for Virgin, look like small potatoes. In fact, says Branson, Cathay have been ''more than kind'' to him. The intial Yes, he has some of the trappings wealth brings such as a 'comfortable' four storey early Victorian home in London's fashionable tree-lined Holland Park (although he is thinking of moving the family back onto a house boat) and the country retreat in Oxfordshire. But he does not display the arrogance or pomposity so typical of today's new rich who surround themselves with 'toys' and hangers on. In many ways it is almost as though he has been caught in a time warp ... a left over from the 1960s. He wears brightly coloured jumpers and jeans in preference to well cut-tailored suits and prefers his hair long. His house does not smack of the opulence of the new rich but, instead, has the feel of a well lived in family home with a kids cubby-house tucked away down one corner of the garden.An unasuming, almost shy man Branson makes a point of keeping his family life independent from his business ... although scale models of his Virgin aircraft adorn his living room along with various awards he has received over the years. He does, however, make one or two exceptions ... the office just happens to be in a similar house just two doors down the road is one of those exceptions. 'Weekends,' he says, 'Are sacrosanct. That is when we pack a few things into the car and take off for the country side. And holidays take a little bit longer than normal.'Much of Branson's normality is said to be due to his second wife Joan, a tall Glaswegian who detests pretention and the antithesis of the typical rich man's wife who prefers jeans to designer fashions. She is the inner circle that runs his life and shields their two children, Sam and Holly, from the pressAt 43 he still has that boyish enthusiasm for taking on new challenges and embarking on new adventures.Sitting in the lounge-room of his Holland Park home he talks enthusiastically about his next adventure ... a balloon flight around the world. 'We are building the balloon right now,' he said. 'I think this will be the ultimate adventure.'Will he be taking part? 'Sadly no,' he says. 'I'll be watching from the ground. I have pushed my luck a little too far over the years and with two small children now I don't want to risk pushing it further. I have been pulled out of the sea three times and am very fortunate to be alive today.'So I will leave that side to others and will be content watching it all happen from the ground.'In 1986 Branson recaptured the Blue Riband (subs: correct) from the United States for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic in Virgin Atlantic Challenger II. His first attempt, a few years ealier, had ended in disaster but this time Branson and his crew managed to knock two hours and nine minutes (rpt two hours and nine minutes) off the record set in 1952 by the passenger ship SS United States of three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes (rpt three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes). At the same time he tried to secure the Hales trophy which was established in 1935 by English businessman Harold Hales for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing. This honour, however, was denied him as it was specifically established for passenger ships. The four foot high gold and silver trophy, also won by the SS United States for its 1952 Blue Riband crossing, is still held in the New York Museum. In the following year he accomplished another equally spectacular feat by making the first crossing of the Atlantic in a hot air balloon and followed that up four years later with the first ever crossing of the Pacific in a hot air balloon.Why? 'I guess Iliked the challenge they offered,' he said with a boyish grin.In many ways he was also fulfilling his boyhood dream of being an explorer. His hero then was Scott of the Antarctic who just happened to be a cousin of his grandfather, Sir George Branson.'Scott was a man who pushed himself to achieve goals people thought were unachievable,' Branson says with some pride. 'I'm a bit like that. All my life I have set myself new targets so I can prove to myself that I can achieve those new targets.'Sure, there were times when I could have simply walked away from every thing and gone to live on an island after having made by my fortune. 'The point is, I have spent 40 odd years learning a great deal and have achieved a lot ... I'll be damned when I'm 80 looking back on my life just to see that I wasted the second half.'Born into a class of property and comfort the young Richard Branson was more inclined to sport rather than books. His father, who had come from three generations of lawyers, would have liked his son to have followed in his footsteps.His mother, who was one of the first women to fly over the Andes with British South American Airlines where she worked as a stewardess just after the war, had different ambitions ... she believed that her son would one day become prime minister of Great Britain. As one friend said: 'He gets his charm from his father and drive from his mother. The Branson women all have incredible drive. Even Richards grandmother, now 95 made the Guinness Book of Records three years ago for being the oldest person in the world to score a hole-in-one at golf.''Richard's philosophy has been that anything is possible ... something he got from his mother. Even his sisters, Lindi and Venessa, have much the same outlook.'In many ways, fate also played its part in shaping Bransons life. Poor eye sight, which was detected late in his school life, was the reason why he had fallen behind academically and a serious cartilage operation in his knee put an early end to ambitions he once had of being an Olympic sports star.'In many ways I was never cut out to be anything than what I am,' he said. When he left school in the summer of 1967 his headmaster was quoted as saying:'Richard, Ia predict that you'll either end up in prison or become a millionaire.'In January the following year the first issue of Student magazine appeared with a cover by Peter Blake whose Sgt Pepper album cover, some months earlier, had made him a cult figure in Britain. Student was more than a pop culture magazine ... it reflected the changing face of Britain generally. It featured interviews with artists such as Henry Moore, Venessa Redgrave, who had started to make a name for herself in radical political circles, and the first indepth story on the provisional IRA. Even John Le Carre was a contributor. In 1970 Virgin was born with the Virgin-Mail order business, mainly to finance Student at a time when the counter-culture revolution, which had swept Europe and the UnitedStates, had started to go into liquidation. Long hair was replaced with respecatble hair cuts, jeans and cheesecloth shirts were swapped for suits, and the idea of peace and love traded-in for secure jobs and mortgages.in Britain, where the free and easy attitudes of the swinging 60s were replaced by the hard economic realities which were to eventually mould the 70s -- strikes and unemployment. But the young Richard Branson and his team clung to their ideals and despite the fact album sales had, for the first time, outsold singles they believed a market still existed for mail-order records even by the most obscure bands.Within months the mail order business had eclipsed Student and in 1971 the first Virgin record store opened in London's Oxford Street. Again he had read the market correctly and soon the Virgin record stores outstripped the mail order business. Branson's next challenge was to open his own recording studio and establish his own record lable.In March 1971 he bought Shipton Manor near Oxford for Stg30,000 and quickly set about converting the stables into a recording studio.The first recording on the Virgin lable was an album called Tubular Bells in 1973 by a shy, young musician by the name of Mike Oldfield. Tubular Bells became the biggest selling album of the decade, made Mike Oldfield an international name and gave Branson his first million ... the rest, as they say, is now history.The Virgin label quickly established itself as the premier recording lable for the 70s and 80s and made Branson a very rich man in the process. Their were spin-offs such as night clubs, video games, music publishing, film and video distribution, broadcasting and television.In 1984 Branson took the biggest gamble of his business career and launched Virgin Atlantic Airways. Branson denies it was a gamble saying:'It was a new challenge ... far bigger than anything I had ever done before.'There is a saying that the easiest way to become a millionaire is to start off as a billionaire and go into the airline business. But if someone is foolish enough to risk his or her money ... then why not?' As far as the record business was concerned I had learnt everything I could about it. I knew all the artists, had been to the conerts and clubs and knew how to make it work. There were no new challenges ... nothing new to learn.'For me big is an ugly wordanyway. When you get to a certain size in business you should start to get smaller again and build up.'My skill as an entrepreneur is not to run a big multi-conglomerate company. All my companies have started from scratch. I have invested in good people and given them a stake in the business.'For me there is nothing more exciting than than to watch a company grow ... just like Virgin Atlantic.'In 1992 he sold the Virgin Music Group to Thorn EMI and made stg320 million in the process. It was one of the hardest decisions he had ever had to make. In just over 20 years Branson and a small, close-knit group of friends had built the company up into one of Britain's biggest entertainment empires.Aviation is now the dominant factor in his busines life. 'Running an airline,' he said, 'Should be like running a very good restaurant or club ... the owner has to be on hand all the time. That is one advantage a small airline like ours has over the competition ... we can pay attention to detail.'All 4,000 employees of Virgin Atlantic have his home phone number and address and a free to ring him at any time or write.'I think it is important for employees to have that access and to feel that they are part of a big family rather than a company.'There is no secret formula for my success. It comes down to having good people. If you have a good team you can achieve anything. You can enjoy the good times and ride out the rough times.'Work should be more than just a paypacket. It is knowing you are wanted and knowing that you can and will be listened to.'Running a company shouldbe like bringing up a family ... praise, praise and more praise.When you water a flower it flourishes if you don't water it, it dies. If people cock-up you don't have to tell them they cocked-up because they know.''One of his closest friends in the aviation business is Sir Freddie Laker whose Laker Airways went bust in the early 80s. 'Laker's big mistake,' he said, 'is that he didn't go for the quality end of the market. A fact which Laker admits himself. We are coming up for our 10th anniversary and we have been in business three times longer than Laker and we have fought many battles to stay in business.'Our aim has always been to provide a quality service and to be one step ahead of the competition all the time. If you are small you can come up with new innovative ideas.'Aviation is unlike anything I have been involved in because I don't think you can learn everything about it and that is the thrill of of learning something new ... there is always a challenge.'