Billionaire Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group of companies, said he is exploring opportunities across businesses such as mobile telephony, broadcasting, film production and aviation in India.
Virgin already has a presence in the radio business in the country through a partnership with HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint. The two companies run an FM radio network in the country under the brand name Fever 104. And Sir Richard’s airline Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd flies between London and Delhi and Mumbai.
Sir Richard Branson at an event in New Delhi on Monday
“The next move is in (the) mobile (space),” said Sir Richard, whose business empire clocked revenues in excess of $20 billion in 2006 (Rs92,840 crore then). “We are working hard to get mobile services into India... at a national level. We should launch by mid next year,” he added on the sidelines of an event organized by Fever 104 to mark its first anniversary.
Earlier this year, media reports had said that Virgin Mobile was exploring a partnership with the Tata group which runs Tata Teleservices Ltd. “At this stage, I can’t talk about partners. I am coming back in two months to talk about Virgin Mobile,” he said.
With over 200 mobile telephony customers, India is one of the biggest markets for such services. With between six and eight million people going mobile every month, it is also one of the fastest growing.
Television and films are also high on Sir Richard’s agenda.
He said Virgin was keen to launch a television channel targeted at the youth. “Television is a much more powerful medium than radio for the (Virgin) brand. We are exploring ideas in this space,” Branson added. He said that Virgin could partner with HT Media for this venture too. Rajiv Verma, CEO, HT Media, said it was premature to talk of such plans. “At present, we have no plans of getting into television but we are constantly looking at moving away from our dependency on print. TV is definitely a part of that strategy,” he added.
A media expert said Virgin’s interest in the broadcast space was logical. “The media sector (in India) is booming. Virgin has an extensive presence across various verticals including media and entertainment. So it is not surprising that they plan to register their presence here,” said C.V.L. Srinivas, CEO, Sure Waves Pvt. Ltd, a Delhi-based media firm that offers convergence solutions.
Sir Richard is looking to enter the films business through his comic book publishing company Virgin Animation Pvt. Ltd. Virgin Animation is a partnership between Virgin, author Deepak Chopra, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and entrepreneurs Sharad Devarajan, Gotham Chopra and Suresh Seetharaman. In the next two years, the company would start looking at films, Sir Richard said. “It could be our entry way into Bollywood.”
Sir Richard has plans to bolster his presence in the aviation sector as well. Confirming Virgin’s acquisition of a 20% stake in Malaysian carrier Air Asia X, the world’s first low-cost long-haul airline that started services last month, he said the airline would fly into India in the next two to three years as it expands routes.
In India, where laws do not allow foreign firms to run airlines, Sir Richard said he could look for an alliance with one of the country’s large domestic carriers. “We would love to run a domestic airline in India. If it is opened up, you will see us competing with Kingfisher and Jet,” he added.