1. When Lord King, chairman of British Airways, the ruthless, aggressive, bull-like British businessman, emerged from the High Court in the spring of 1994 after his long libel battle with the owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, he managed a weak smile as he shook his adversary’s hand. He had taken on the opponent he had expected to crush, an opponent with a fuzzy beard. Instead of destroying him he had been hammered, forced into a humiliating apology and a payout of six hundred thousand pounds in damages. He had met the whiz kid cum high flyer Richard Branson.

    Lord King was not the first to make that mistake. Richard Branson does not look the part. There he is, a man usually to be found in Marks and Spencer’s sweaters with a wooly beard sitting in the boardroom of one of the biggest British success stories of the 1980’s. If asked to guess his profession, one might say he was a teacher or maybe a social worker. One would never imagine that he is the founder and owner of one of the largest private conglomerates in Britain, an empire that encompasses everything from soft drinks to hotel and hypermarket subsidiaries, not to mention an airline that has rapidly grown into Britain’s favourite and this is not achieved by being a soft touch.

    There was little evidence in Richard Branson’s early career that he would become such a high flyer. He had a poor academic record at school despite being the son of a successful barrister and attending one of Britain’s most expensive public schools. He dropped out of school at sixteen.

    He then entered the business world. He published magazines, ran a small mail order record business and launched his own record company before he was twenty-one.

    In 1984, Richard Branson entered into a partnership the American lawyer, Randolph Fields, who had the idea of a cut-price transatlantic airline. Typically, Branson moved fast and within three months was photographed in the cockpit of their first Boeing plane. Branson is brilliant at marketing though he has never read a marketing book. He rarely speaks in marketing jargon, he simply knows how to do it. Branson made his airline the fun and fashionable airline to fly. He promoted it innovatively, not by advertising, not by cost-cutting but by embarking on ingenious and creative adventures in powerboats and by almost killing himself by trying to set the world record for hot-air ballooning.

    Unlike most eighties money-makers and entrepreneurs, he showed a genuine and modern social conscience. When the AIDS epidemic began, he responded by starting a cut-price condom manufacturing company and he was responsible for initiating a campaign to make London a cleaner city. Perhaps it was this that made Lord King think that Branson could be easily scared off as a rival by his own campaign of dirty tricks, which had begun in 1994.

    Adapted from Vogue Magazine

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