One of the most successful, and interesting, entrepreneurs of his time, Branson harks back to a more exciting and glamorous era when business was dominated by colorful and daring personalities. Handsome, charming and charismatic, Branson is also one of England’s most popular public figures. His diverse web of private businesses includes Virgin Atlantic Airways, now the world’s third largest trans-Atlantic airline. Other Virgin Group companies are involved in retail, travel, entertainment, hotels, financial services, cinemas, radio stations, cell phones, soft drinks and more. The Virgin Group, structured as a series of small companies rather than one huge corporation, is England’s largest privately held company. Virgin employs 24,000 people in its 150 businesses and has a reputation as a benevolent employer, rarely resorting to layoffs.
Though adventurous in his businesses, Branson is far more daring in his personal life and has come close to dying several times while attempting to set ballooning records. In 1991 he became the first person to cross the Pacific Ocean in a balloon, but he did not succeed in any of his attempts to become the first to circumnavigate Earth in a balloon. He is also a skydiver, skier and speedboat racer.
Born in Surrey, England, Branson was the oldest of three children. His father was an attorney. His adventuresome mother had been a dancer, actress and flight attendant; she learned how to fly a glider and trained with the Royal Air Force during World War II. When Richard was 4, she left him alone in the countryside to teach him to be more self-reliant. When he was 17, he dropped out of high school and started his first business, a magazine for students. In 1970 Branson founded Virgin Records, which would form the foundation of his business empire. The company struggled at first and Branson was arrested for tax evasion, but he eventually paid all his business debts and back taxes. In 1992 he sold Virgin Music Group for almost a billion dollars in order to fund his struggling airline.
Married twice, Branson has two children. He and his family live in an old villa in London’s Holland Park. His vacation homes include Necker, a private island in the Caribbean. Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity, was published in 1998.