Nurtured Nature In a Greek nightclub Richard Branson wants to say something. I can tell. He has that look which bosses get when they deal with journalists day in, day out — a faint hesitation of calculation before they open their mouths. We are standing in an Athens nightclub, way past midnight, sometime in spring, 1993. I’ve been sent by a newspaper colour supplement to shadow him, to tag along and write an extended profile examining his character, his popularity, his determination to overcome all odds. It is a key time in Branson’s career. He has just emerged victorious in his mud-slinging battle with British Airways, winning a large sum in libel damages and a public apology from his arch-enemy Lord King, the BA chairman. (Forget the fact that, later, people would dispute the money, the victory, the tactics.) King, a seasoned, old-style corporate chief — self-made man who rode to hounds, lord at Margaret Thatcher’s round table — has already tried to explain his mishandling of the fight thus: “If Richard Branson had worn a pair of steel-rimmed glasses, a double-breasted suit and shaved off his beard, I would have taken him seriously. As it was, I couldn’t … I underestimated him.” It is a prescient moment. Branson, the jumper-wearing beardie, has finally been confirmed as Britain’s best-loved businessman. Within seven years no-one is wearing suits — the dotcommers, the start-ups, the agency people, the consultants, venture capitalists, even accountants. By 2000, you would underestimate someone if they were wearing a suit (must be a lawyer). We don’t need that crap any more. We can be casual. We can he Branson. Branson had won, he had overturned the forces of fusty, old-style capitalism by proving that malevolent powers lurked underneath. And he had managed to make us all feel sorry for a man worth, in 1993, £475m, with huge houses in Holland Park and Oxfordshire, an island in the Caribbean, swimming pools, Jacuzzis, tennis courts, cricket pitches and hundreds of not particularly well-paid employees. Sorry for him, because BA had not played fair, they had rigged their computers to steal his customers, engaged private eyes to dig up dirt, tried to smear and besmirch his reputation. And because we like Branson, because he is different, because, in some small way, he changed how business is done and perceived, and because deep clown we want to be him. If Britbiz was a movement, he would probably have been its founder. Back to the nightclub. It had been a long and pretty hellish day, traipsing round after the man as he did whatever you do on these kind of whirlwind foreign tours. Attended a party thrown by the British Consul, flew out to the island of Hydra in his helicopter to check a potential hotel site, out to dinner with a party so big a whole restaurant is annexed. The main purpose of the trip is to launch Branson’s new joint venture with a small Greek air airline, which as far as I could understand was repainting its planes, changing its name to Virgin, dressing its stewardesses in Virgin red, flying between Gatwick and Athens, and paying Branson handsomely for the privilege. Nice work if you can get it. Branson is in town on the inaugural flight to pump up publicity — something he is truly an expert in — accompanied by his wife, his kids, his parents, umpteen Virgin staff, travel agents, trade journalists, a documentary TV crew and me. And he handles it all beautifully, giving time for everyone, making the right speeches at the right moment in that rather winning, hesitant manner he has, as if everything he has to say comes right from the heart, as if he is a hit embarrassed about it, and as if, erm, gosh, er, no-one has ever, um, asked him to speak in, erm, public before. And after the restaurant his family are sent back to the hotel and we all pile into the nightclub. Half of Athens seems to be inside, convinced that Branson is bringing Sting and Phil Collins with him (no-one told them he sold the record company the year before). The other half of Athens is queuing outside. Inside the club it is surreal. A large screen plays a Virgin Atlantic corporate video. On a small stage opposite a quartet of ageing musicians is playing a loud bossa nova. Every so often one of them leans into the microphone and choruses “Virgeen! Virgeen!” Branson, in white shirt and jeans, is watching from a balcony above. A Virgin PR dances on a table next to him and a coterie of red-jacketed flight attendants, who have followed him like an amiable posse all trip, stand waiting. I stick close to Branson, looking to add colour for my piece, knowing that colour is what he is good at providing (before anyone else in business, he saw that wave coming, and rode it brilliantly). I can see he feels my presence — I might write he feels my need, but that could be misconstrued — and eventually he tries to oblige. Squashed against a hack wall in the club, flanked by fans, he turns to me and grins. “Hey, did you ever have a little black book, you know, one where you keep all your girlfriends’ addresses?” I am hopeless at macho banter. I can’t think how to respond. No, I reply, fumbling my cue. His face clouds fleetingly. Branson, who at that stage in his career, was always making jokes about being an incorrigible flirt, had been aiming for a point of contact and missed. What could he have been about to say? Probably just some good copy, finely judged to look personal. He does it all the time, and I’d muffed it. The funny thing was, by far the most interesting person on that trip was not Branson himself, but his mother. * Two questions Many years later, perched on the edge of an expensive seat in a vast luxury flat in London’s West End, I ask Sir Alan Sugar, boss of Amstrad, consumer electronics king, self-made man incarnate, what makes a good entrepreneur? He answers swiftly, aggressively, uncompromisingly.
“It’s the way you are born, what’s in you, brain power, fast brain, aptitude for business you are in, quick understanding of what can be done and what can’t be done, watching the way markets change, jumping in quickly and exploiting them, and having a sense of what the end-user wants.” It begs two questions. Could there be a gene for entrepreneurial activity? And what kind of upbringing produces entrepreneurs? * ... your mum and dad I have lost count of the amount of times I have sat in a room with a successful man telling me about how close he was to his mother. I didn’t twig till Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, told me about her dad. Her real dad, not the man who had been married to her mother. It was complicated, difficult, not the sort of thing you would wish on any child growing up, but what came through, apart from the sense of her knowing long before she was told, was the bond. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. Perhaps it comes down to confidence, to removing that fear of rejection. A parent who tells a child all things are possible, whatever anyone else says or feels, to push on regardless, not to doubt that they will be loved whatever happens, may well produce egomaniacal monsters for the world, but also a fair proportion of confident leaders, maybe even some great business builders. That’s not nature at work — how many successful entrepreneurs are children of successful entrepreneurs? — but nurture. Or at least, some cunning combination of the two. Nature: ...the inherent power or force by which physical and mental activities are sustained; the inherent dominating power or impulse tin people or animals) by which action or character is determined, directed or controlled; (opp. nurture) heredity as an influence on or determinant of personality ... (OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY) Nurture: ...the process of bringing up or training a person, esp. a child; tutelage; fostering care. Also, social environment as an influence on or determinant of personality Copp. nature). (OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY) * Bringing up Richard Eve Branson. Thin, blonde, good-looking, even in her 70s. If you read the biographies, she is regularly said to have given Branson his ambition — Ted, his genial, erudite, barrister dad (son of a judge, grandson of a colonial lawyer), gave him his charm. Talk to Branson and he will say that it was Eve (father a stockbroker, grandmother secretary to the Bishop of Edinburgh, grandfather a clergyman) who forced the shy boy out of himself, who stopped him watching television and loafing about, who forced him to do things, to perform at parties, to get outside, to get noticed. Most famously, she was the mother who dropped him off, aged four, half a mile from home, and told him to find his own way hack. To toughen him up. Branson once remarked: “My parents brought me up with this philosophy: ‘You must do things — you mustn’t watch what other people are doing; you mustn’t listen to what other people are doing’.” It’s as if she unburdened him of the self-consciousness that holds the rest of Britain back. Perform, cross-dress, hang from a helicopter, balloon around the world, get noticed, be brave. You’ve nothing to lose except my affection if you don’t... perform. Eve was a dancer from a well-off family who worked rather than loafed. She became an air hostess. She ran her own embroidery business from the back garden. She kept notes and diaries. Sound familiar? She is also an immensely strong personality. I met her on that trip to Athens. She and Ted were almost ancillary Virgin executives, clucking over the press, partying with the best of them, but never exchanging more than polite banalities. Branson had his wife Joan and children Holly and Sam with him too. Joan famously never gives interviews but will chat cautiously. It was extraordinarily confident of Branson to push his whole family under the spotlight with that kind of pressure on them — some would find it distasteful. But we weren’t there to write about them, and generally didn’t. It was a very winning, or calculated, exercise in trust. The press took their cues from the Virgin staff. They were always edgy round Eve and Joan, trying to anticipate their needs, constantly prepared to back off. The flight hack to London was at 8am; Branson had kept the press pack partying till 4am. At the airport, Ted, white hair swept back, a Kipling volume in his summer suit pocket, approached a journalist sitting on the floor, hungover and groaning. “My, my,” he grinned, “you look like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.” Eve, meanwhile, resplendent in black stretch suit and gold trim, was starting to write notes furiously on her Virgin press pack. Later I was told she was preparing a book about her travels with Richard. Her son, it transpired, was pulling out all the stops to prevent her from finding a publisher. * The art of profile By the year 2000, British business — funky, sexy, Cool Britannia business, the sort of hiphoppy biz vibe that says it’s neat to trade shares on the net, set up on your own and create wealth — has learnt from Branson. Luke Johnson, one of the brighter entrepreneurs around, says to me: “Is it important to have profile? It’s not important, it’s not essential, but it can be helpful. Lots of people say, keep a low profile. The obvious argument against that is Richard Branson who has founded his whole career on the most phenomenal PR known to man. He’s had good people and good ideas but it is the profile that has carried him. I’m not saying he isn’t a genius at it. What I am saying is, without the PR, he wouldn’t be the richest self-made man in the UK. That’s the great counter-argument to those who say never get publicity.” Luke Johnson, on top of making tens of millions of pounds from his investments in restaurant chains such as Pizza Express and Belgo, writes his own newspaper column. * Branson the hero When he was growing up, Richard Branson was told that being shy was being selfish. Can the world ever get it right about Branson? We don’t know him, we don’t live with him, we didn’t have his upbringing. We can only make stabs in the dark that sometimes draw blood. Tom Bower’s biography of Branson sits on my desk. You might call it a brilliant hook of bile, comparable only to Albert Goldman’s work on John Lennon and Elvis Presley, studies in sadistic scholarship. Is that too strong? I don’t think so. Yet Bower’s hook is a timely antidote to the other Branson biographies; you can react them side by side, yin and yang, Branson the brave adventurer, Branson the cheating philanderer (male entrepreneurs and oversized libidos: discuss). Even if it is a fair and accurate appraisal — and Bower’s book certainly rings true, the mugs who lost their ideas to Branson, the gullible staff who worked for pennies while the boss salted his millions away off-shore, the convoluted, contradictory doublespeak of the PR-obsessed tycoon — no-one wants to hear that particular kind of truth. We prefer the truth we bought earlier. Branson the hero. Because we’ve invested too much in it. And then, in 2000, the government refused to give him the National Lottery. If this is just about the only time that events have turned on Branson, the publicity bubble pricked, then what are we left with? Another deflated tycoon? But from where I am sitting, the bubble hasn’t really burst, just sagged a hit and then swelled out again with renewed confidence. If that’s your best shot... Maybe it will just be a slow puncture. I asked Branson once whether he enjoyed courting publicity. He shrugged. “You know,” he said, “it’s not that enjoyable when you do the same 15 interviews every day...” Then he gave me a jumble of thoughts disguised in his normal, stuttering, stop-start style. “Well, there are two big dividing lines, you will never see anything with me that is family related, like Hello! magazine spreads, but if you are proud of the business you have to get out there and promote it. The only business I will ever do interviews about is the airline. We get approached regularly and always say no to anything that doesn’t put the airline name in the forefront. Now, having got the name Virgin well-known worldwide, either I can sit back as chairman and say I am not interested in working any more, or I can be proud of the project I have launched and work bloody hard to make sure it is a success, and support all the people that are working hard on the ground to make it work.”
Also, he says, ticking off the advantages, a high profile makes a boss’s work easier. “Because I am well-known I can pick up a phone to anyone in the world and get straight through to the president of a company and get things done.” In other words, he’d thought it all out. And he is quite at ease being in the spotlight, just like the boy who was dragged downstairs to perform for his mother’s guests. Being shy, he was told, is being selfish. Does that define his management style too? Make him more overbearing, more patriarchal, perhaps? “I guess I am more patriarchal than a lot of bosses. There are little things, like I ask the staff to write to me with suggestions which, in a conventional business, people would he worried about bypassing their managers. I think because people come straight to me, I have taken on the role of head of the union — oh, this is going to sound awful in print — but I often think that if there is a need for a union, then management has failed. It’s usually set up in frustration at the decisions made. If everyone in the company can go straight to me, then I will give them the benefit of the doubt over their managers, and managers accept that approach. I will usually side with the individual to make sure there is no frustration bubbling up. I will mediate between the two.” Does he think he is more pivotal to the business than other kinds of bosses, because there is more focus on him? “I suspect that’s the case but you have to differentiate between the different kinds of businesses. I have a hands-on approach to the travel business because the only way I can see it succeeding is like private enterprise where the owner is hands-on, like a club or a restaurant, the personal touch. To compete with the big companies you have that quality, where the person at the top is concerned with much of the attention to detail...” What will happen to Branson? Some who know him have always said his popularity contains the seed of its own destruction. “He has a very perceptive view of what attracts people to buy his products,” says Sir Michael Bishop, boss of rival airline British Midland, “but he will have to recognize the moment at which people tire of the image. That’s the great trap.” Others think that, just as he has made more people interested in entrepreneurialism, so his particular way of doing business will eventually be picked apart. “He will go down,” says one venture capitalist who had his fingers burnt dealing with Branson. “I absolutely predict it.” And yet we are still waiting. Even the calamitous performance of Virgin trains hasn’t pricked his bubble. Sure, the articles where Branson takes the writer ballooning or to his summer party or off on a plane do look a little tired now, exercises in evasion rather than insight. But his ads still carry his face, he is still his company’s most potent marketing tool. My osteopath has read every book on Branson. People are obsessed. Branson is confident enough, it seems, to have no private side at all. What makes a man do that? Because it works.
And sitting in Branson’s opulent home in London’s Holland Park, with its landscaped gardens and basement swimming pool and conservatory the size of most of his employees’ houses, I remember feeling rather confused. This is not a home. It’s crawling with office staff. The joke in Virgin went that, every so often, Joan made Branson move to another house to regain some private space, before the workforce encroached again. And as Branson is the most influential British business figure of his generation, close almost to blocking out the sun, where is that taking us? * 15-0 A woman I play tennis with said to me last year: “I read about you on holiday. You’re in Richard Branson’s autobiography. It quite spoiled my trip.” She laughs. For just a moment Branson’s shadow had widened even further to engulf me too. * If In the end you have to admit — Branson is a glorious boy. It struck me after spending those days with him: he is surrounded by women, women who adore him, strong women who organize him, his wife Joan, his mother Eve, women who idolize him. Yet none has a position of power in his business empire. He is the lovable, calculating tyke who never understood girls and never had to grow up and wear a suit, whose mum always tousled his hair when he came back from school with rotten exam results and said, never mind Richard, I still love you, just make a mark, be different to the rest. He could do no wrong even when he did wrong. Could you set out to bring up Richard? As builders say, two chances (might work, might not). Yet, somehow, something seemed to freeze-dry him at age 18, stumbling into adulthood, his ambition and drive and determination overcoming boyish gaucheness and intellectual insecurity. Having watched him work, I once wrote that Branson ran his businesses like a feudal lord, despatching orders from his dining room table (literally), his loyal retainers stepping over the wolfhounds (metaphorically) to reach him. But looking back and reading the books and watching what’s happened to him, he now seems more and more like a character from Lindsay Anderson’s If. Malcolm McDowell, shy-boy-turned-cocky-chanter, decides not to shoot up the school but go into business, and run it his way. A gang of (male) mates to plot with. The occasional chick to dance by the juke box. Someone to sort your clothes out. Someone to take their clothes off. People to take advantage of. Money to be made. Increasingly embattled but always cocksure. Or maybe the key to Branson is that, from a distance, he is fantastically unthreatening. That’s why people like him, why they want to join his gang, and why rivals underestimate him, just as Lord King did, just as so many competitors and business partners have in the past. They think they can easily be as smart and gung-ho and full-of-fun. They think they can adopt that character. I wonder. * Two facts In my line of work, bosses invariably ascribe their dominant characteristics, those characteristics that have made them successful, to one or other parent. Men mostly to their mothers. Women to their fathers. Generally, too — and remember, these are men and women who are now very rich compared with you and me — they talk about childhoods where money was tight, where parents fussed over their lack of cash, where financial crisis was always imminent, or indeed upon them. Most people believe successful business leaders are just products of their environment. * Luke Johnson invites me to the Mandrake Club (but only because I asked) To: Andrew Davidson, 101457,2115 Date: Wed, Oct 4, 2000, 2:35 pm RE: Mandrake - 10 October 2000 Dear Guest, The next Mandrake will be held on Tuesday 10 October 2000 at the usual venue, the bar above PizzaExpress, 23 Bruton Place, Mayfair W1 at 6.30pm. Our speaker will be Jacqueline de Baer, Founder and Chief Executive of de Baer, which designs, manufactures and distributes corporate clothing. The Company was established in 1984 on a beach in Spain and now employs over 70 staff and has a list of blue-chip clients including Marriott Hotels, Boots Opticians, Odeon and JMC. Please reply to this email to let us know whether you will be attending. We look forward to seeing you next week. Kind regards, Luke Johnson & David Ross It’s quite easy to like Luke Johnson, not just because he is prepared to say yes, but also because he is, when he wants to be, a funny and caustic interviewee. You might also enjoy the fact that many journalists mistrust him, can’t quite make him out. They hate the fact that his father is one of their own and Luke himself — with that weekly column in a national newspaper — is not a bad scribbler. It’s as if Johnson himself is saying, I can make millions and do your job in my spare time... Johnson is too bright to be a Branson. Too threatening. I’m not sure Johnson likes me. He says I can come to the Mandrake, the monthly entrepreneurs’ club that he set up with Charlie Dunstone’s number two, David Ross, if I follow Salisbury Club rules. What are those? No quotes, few details. Well, OK. The club has an aura around it, Johnson doesn’t like journalists coming, the tabloids whisper that only millionaires are invited. Oh please. In fact, it’s a few youngish people standing round plates of cut-up pizza listening to an entrepreneur speak. If the speaker’s fun, it works; if not, then it’s low-key. But it’s a sign of the times that such a gathering can get others begging for invites. Being an entrepreneur is suddenly cool. People want money, people want independence, they want things for themselves. Johnson, like Branson before him, has become a little bit of an icon. When I turn up one autumn night to the second floor room above Pizza Express off Berkeley Square, Johnson doesn’t recognize me. I shake his hand, introduce myself and he says, I want to talk to you later. I’d just published a long profile of Johnson and his tone is that of a man who wants to put me straight on a few things. That night he had invited Jacqueline de Baer to speak. De Baer, good looking, charmingly informal, in her 40s, has made millions setting up a corporate clothing firm. She started with swimming trunks for holiday reps and broadened the range till she was mass-producing for supermarket staff and rail employees. She explains how she is dealing almost more in motivation than overalls now. We nod and sip our beers. There are around 40 of us gathered to listen. We’ve already attacked the subsidized bar — £1.50 for a Perroni, thanks, Luke. Then we listen to de Baer’s 15-minute speech, how she made it, what drives her on. At one point she says, “I’m not quite sure why I am doing this tonight, it’s my birthday!” Everyone laughs. After a few questions about where the business is going next, we return to the bar. A gaggle of men hang around, mostly young, mostly loud, ties off, hands in pockets, quite a few, I would guess, in advertising or other client service businesses. Johnson, 38, thin, good-looking with dark eyes and an upturned nose, moves from group to group, chatting sociably like a night club owner in his black T-shirt and jacket. I ask him why he does it. He says he needed to pick up on the entrepreneurial buzz sweeping London. “It was an idea of Rosso and mine, great fun, we just wanted to have great people. We’ve had Ken Bates, Peter Stringfellow, William Hague, Alan Sugar, Christopher Bland... We’re pretty discriminating about who we invite, it’s all off the record and we try to get as many entrepreneurs as possible.” No-one gets an easy ride. The questions to Jeffrey Archer, when he spoke, were “pretty assertive”, says Johnson. The funny thing is, he adds, that while lots of people know about the club, most are too shy to approach him about it. He giggles. “I think they think it’s a secret club like Hellfire or something.” There are other reasons too, I would guess. Johnson enjoys being at the centre of attention and likes organizing things, but is hardly the most approachable of men. He has an acid tongue and you don’t have to go far in London to find people in business who have fallen foul of it. One I spoke to, working for a rival restaurant operation, fulminated against Johnson to me, accusing him of claiming credit for other people’s success (Pizza Express) and arguing that he is totally motivated by his rivalry with his once best friend, pubs entrepreneur Hugh Osmond. And that’s probably true. But it still doesn’t explain why Johnson wants to spin other entrepreneurs around him. Is he frightened of missing a trick? Is he constantly on the look-out for ideas to borrow? When I ask him, Johnson says that when he was young, he always had little projects on the go, that’s what differentiated him from the rest of the family. Getting teams together for sports, and organizing projects. “I like that word that was used in the sixteenth or seventeenth century,” he says. “Projectors, people who have projects. I didn’t see it that way at the time, but I see it now, I always liked organizing.” The Mandrake Club is just another little project. “And the great thing about clubs is that you meet interesting people,” says Johnson. And people, and the opportunities for business that they provide, are what pushes a man like Johnson on.
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