Branson: Behind The Mask | Tom Bower

Brand Branson

Flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson comes under some serious scrutiny in this unauthorized biography by former BBC reporter Tom Bower. The book, Branson: Behind The Mask, opens, in July 2007 in the Mojave desert in New Mexico, US, with a horrific accident that kills three engineers. This is where Virgin Galactic, Branson’s futuristic space tourism company, has its rocket tests.

Branson has already sold tickets to space travel, to sundry billionaires, at $200,000 (around 1.22 crore) per head, but the space programme is stuck. Converting a crude two-man rocket into a craft capable of carrying two pilots and six passengers into space in a non-orbital flight is fraught with safety perils and uncertainties. Yet Branson the businessman is all bluster, announcing unrealistic deadlines at celebrity events attended by people like actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, where sleek aircraft are unveiled to the tune of the theme music in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writes Bower.

Bower has a history of writing controversial biographies, most of which are unauthorized. His earlier subjects include businessman Mohamed Al Fayed, British politician Gordon Brown, Formula One executive Bernie Ecclestone, American Idol judge Simon Cowell and, in 2000, an earlier book on Richard Branson himself. He has been sued several times by the rich and powerful he turns his relentless eye on, including once, unsuccessfully, by Branson himself in 2000.

In this book Bower chronicles Branson’s businesses, from the money-making Virgin Music, Virgin Atlantic (the airline started with a single old Boeing 747), Virgin Trains and Virgin Mobile. There are also the duds, like Virgin Money, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Wellness, Virgin Wines and Virgin Cosmetics.

Branson—Behind The Mask: Faber&Faber, 368 pages, Rs 599
Branson—Behind The Mask: Faber&Faber, 368 pages, Rs 599

Yet what Bower shows, in chapter after chapter, with meticulous and messianic zeal, is that most of this is carefully orchestrated hot air. Branson doesn’t have as many billions as he pretends to. His shareholding is shrouded in careful secrecy through 11 different companies, most of them offshore and protected from taxes. Of these, only Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic and, occasionally, Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia) have made substantial profits. Most of the cash flow comes from incumbent businesses like Virgin Rail, dependent on government subsidies and taxpayers’ money for their profits. Branson himself is described as a wheeler-dealer par excellence who flies around the globe in his private jet, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and trying to partner with businesses that do all the work. “Delegation was his management style, but in reality his lack of expertise allowed no alternative," Bower tells us.

Most galling to Bower are Branson’s pronouncements on saving the planet, on going green, and moving to renewable fuels. Many of these lofty statements are made as Branson jets in in his private Falcon, from his home on Necker Island, to fancy summits around the world. Bower minces no words to point out the blatant irony of such claims. He is scathing in his denunciation of what he sees as the cosy coterie of businessmen trying to profit from going green as a strategy to obtain government subsidies. Prominent among these is the Indian-born venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, whose investments in ethanol and other renewable energies have turned out to be failures.

In all of this there’s very little of Branson the man himself, and nothing of his family. His wife Joan and children Holly and Sam barely figure in the narrative. We are told again and again about the sweet deals Branson manages to make for himself and the Virgin brand, but we never ever see these deal-making skills up close. Instead Bower takes an avenging angel’s delight in predicting the demise of the Virgin brand, declaring that “his swansong appears to be protecting the money stashed away offshore".

The book, with its precise reportage and its juxtaposition of the “real" with the “spin", is an illuminating read. If nothing else, it’s a great primer on the power of public relations management.