Tom Bower has been taking bites out of Richard Branson for 15 years, without ever quite digesting the entire man.
The first biography appeared in 2000, covering his career from a 1970 purchase-tax fraud that kept the original Virgin record store afloat, to the story of Virgin trains, a company that thrived on taxpayer handouts and a close relationship with New Labour. Bower updated this book in 2008 to cover the failed attempt to buy Northern Rock, a move supported by Gordon Brown, attacked by Vince Cable and thwarted by Alistair Darling, who ended up nationalising the troubled bank. Now Bower has a not-quite new biography that covers Branson’s antics in the new century.
From a local perspective, Branson has had a good decade. Bower covers the ultimately successful purchase of Northern Rock in 2012; the creation of Virgin Media in 2006 and its profitable sale in 2013; as well as the ongoing story of Virgin Trains, as Branson continues to repel every attempt to prise his hands off the railway tracks. However, Bower treats these as asides, not the main narrative.
The first biography was an attempt to demystify Branson and kill Britain’s love affair with its most flamboyant entrepreneur. Part two is the story of his attempt to woo an international army of lovers as he takes the Virgin brand global. The strategy, according to Bower, is to sell Virgin as a futuristic company that builds and flies spaceships from its base in the New Mexico desert.
Can Virgin Galactic sell the Branson brand to the world? Bower scoffs at the idea. For the past eight years and counting, the launch of Branson’s first rocket has been delayed, rescheduled and postponed and this is not a case of bad luck, claims Bower. Virgin will never achieve space flights, he argues, because it has no rocket powerful enough to lift its ship, and no strategy to build one. (Virgin Galactic say they are making good progress in their efforts.)
This book is subtitled “Behind the Mask”. Like in The Wizard of Oz, Bower is suggesting that behind the mask is nothing but a flim-flam merchant selling fantasies.
Virgin does not feature in a list of the world’s top 100 brands, compiled by Interbrand, but this is not necessarily because Virgin lacks recognition. Branson’s business is impossible to value because it is so shadowy. For example, Virgin Atlantic Airways (GB) is shielded by 13 different shell companies before it can be traced to the Branson tax hideout on Necker Island. According to published accounts, Branson’s earnings are less than £40million, though the revenues of Virgin-branded businesses stand at perhaps £13billion. Bower’s allegation is that Branson is nowhere near as rich as we think (his wealth is often put at £4billion), and the lack of money continually hobbles his plans, such as his failure to crack the US mobile phone market, to the fact that after 30 years in the airline business, he has built a company dwarfed not only by British Airways, but also by Ryanair.
Whether it is lack of money or a parsimonious nature, Branson looks out of place among his New Mexico neighbours. Elon Musk, the PayPal co-founder, has been building spaceships for exactly as long as Branson and is now happily fulfilling a multibillion-dollar contract with Nasa to resupply the international space station. In contrast, Branson has seen his rocket blow up, killing three engineers.
Tom Bower can be a terrific journalist. Broken Dreams, the story of the Premier League’s first 10 years, is gripping. A biography of Bernie Ecclestone is very good. Yet his Branson books fail. The tone in this one is relentlessly sarcastic. The narrative is repetitive and tangled, despite the framing device of Virgin Galactic. Worse, minor facts are often wrong. Bower dates a deal with the manufacturers of a successful rocket to late September 2004, after it won a coveted prize. Branson actually did the deal a month earlier, when the rocket was untested (the ship powered by this rocket is in the Smithsonian but it is not, as Bower suggests, a marketing coup because it is not painted in the Virgin livery).
President Carter is misquoted to make Branson’s funding of elderly globe-trotting politicians look sinister when it is, more charitably, merely self-aggrandising. Somehow, Branson brings out the worst in Bower. Yet maybe that is forgivable. A picture on the back cover, showing Branson pointing at the bums of half-naked glamour models like a Radio 1 DJ from the Eighties reveals more about the man behind the mask than many may wish to know.