Sir Richard Branson calls for another cup of tea and launches into what life is like as a new grandparent.
“My wife and I did the nightly stints with the three babies,” he says, recounting a recent trip to Jamaica when he caught up with his daughter Holly’s six-month-old twins, Etta and Artie, and their cousin Eva-Deia, born in February to son Sam and his wife Isabella. “I have had a lot of practice in nappy changing, feeding and burping. It is a challenge but it is great.”
Life is changing for Britain’s best-known businessman — even if recasting him as a reliable babysitter stretches credulity. Next month, he turns 65. Craggy face behind the whiskers, visage topped off with his signature bleach-blonde mane, Branson doesn’t like to be reminded of the fact.
“I have my wife’s birthday next week and she is six years older than me so that is a big birthday. That is the one that really matters,” he says. Despite the march of time, today is situation normal for Branson. He’s holding court at 35,000 feet, on Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight to Detroit.
There are japes at the bar, kisses for the air stewardesses and a musical interlude as a Motown troupe materialise to perform in the aisles. At some point Branson, gregarious yet shy, ditches his jacket and white shirt for a black T-shirt bearing the legend “Detroit Hustles Harder”. Within minutes of the plane touching down, he is trying to persuade the mayor of Detroit to rehouse homeless Syrians. Mixing public purpose with the fairy dust of publicity, he wants the city that was the chief casualty of America’s industrial decline to prove it is bouncing back.
Family affair: Richard Branson with his grandchildren Etta, Artie and Eva-Deia and wife Joan Next up, a party, a group bike ride and a confidence-building session with a group of entrepreneurs. Not that he can retire, given he doesn’t regard his day job as actually working, but Branson, whose wealth was put at £4.1 billion at the last count, seems to be speeding up, not slowing down.
Virgin is simultaneously trying to put more trains on the East Coast line out of King’s Cross, bid for NHS contracts in Staffordshire and mount an assault on the current account market in banking. And that is just in the UK. Away from the profit imperative, Virgin has distributed 600 government start-up loans in the past year and mentored young entrepreneurs.
Of course Branson doesn’t own all of those businesses. In some cases, he just licences the name. Not for the past decade has he had much day-to-day dealing with Virgin’s commercial enterprises, preferring to focus on his campaigning around the environment or drugs misuse from the shady retreat of Necker Island. Although the razzmatazz of days like these appears to disprove the theory, what is also being quietly tested is how far the Virgin brand goes without Branson to constantly reinforce it.
Behind the scenes there is a team of managers led by former City lawyer Josh Bayliss that runs Virgin, which is owned through a complicated series of offshore trusts. Like any sophisticated private equity firm, funds are raised from the sale of some assets, such as Virgin Media or the stock-market listing of domestic airline Virgin America, and recycled back into new ventures. It is a brand that is practised at bringing in third-party backing too. Much of Virgin’s space funds come from Abu Dhabi; its cruise ships will be bankrolled in part by Singapore.