Richard Branson reveals 'horrible' toll pandemic took on Virgin empire and the way he saved it


With his household holed up alongside him on Necker Island for the pandemic, Sir Richard Branson let his grandchildren right into a secret.

The children needed to know the way their “papa” got here to search out himself within the Caribbean paradise. The reply was easy, Branson defined, however they have been sworn to secrecy. He was a pirate and determined to construct a house on the abandoned island after discovering it throughout his adventures.

Branson’s household adopted him to New Mexico final July to look at the billionaire fulfil a lifetime ambition by collaborating within the maiden voyage of Virgin Galactic, his house tourism enterprise. As he hugged all of them goodbye, six-year-old Etta, twin-daughter of Holly Branson, whispered in his ear for worry of anybody listening to. Branson smiles and remembers: “She said: ‘Papa, does this mean you are going to be the first pirate in space?'”

Today, Britain’s best-known businessman and self-styled pirate is again in ebullient type, holding court docket in Austin, Texas, welcoming Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight to the state capital from Heathrow. It is the airline’s first new US route since 2017 and marks a turning level not only for the airline, however for his entire empire, Branson hopes,

The 71-year-old has, till now, been reluctant to open up concerning the pandemic and the way it was essentially the most troublesome time in a vibrant profession. That Virgin Atlantic, the airline Branson launched in 1984, was taken to the brink of collapse is well-documented. But he now reveals that monetary difficulties went a lot deeper.

“I’d spent 50 years building a business and I suddenly thought ‘Christ. Was it really worth that 50 years?’ It looked like the whole lot was going to come crashing down,” he says.

“We were in the cruise business. In the airline business. In the fitness clubs business. In the hotels business.”

“I thought I’d been quite smart and diversifying everything. But I had to sell 85 per cent of my shares in Virgin Galactic to keep everything on track.”

Coming into the pandemic with extra debt than its rivals, there was a robust suspicion that Virgin Atlantic could be certainly one of Covid’s company casualties. Too small to entry the state assist supplied to its bigger rivals reminiscent of British Airways, and too large to entry small firm monetary help, the airline was left floundering.

Branson’s obvious makes an attempt to save lots of the enterprise made him a pandemic villain in Westminster. It was all a misunderstanding, he says.

As the primary wave of coronavirus swept throughout the UK, Virgin Atlantic’s chairman wrote to the Government, stressing the necessity for monetary help throughout the entire aviation sector. Branson says this was incorrectly interpreted as a billionaire asking taxpayers for a bailout.

“We weren’t looking for a begging bowl for Virgin Atlantic,” he says. “They wrote a letter without me actually knowing that they’ve written it.”

With the disaster intensifying, and airways grounded on a scale by no means seen earlier than, Branson later supplied to mortgage Necker Island in return for monetary help.

“On a purely selfish basis I should have let Virgin Atlantic go on two or three occasions in my lifetime, with the pandemic being one of them,” he says. “But it was something that we felt, I felt, that the public would be very sad to see Virgin Atlantic go.”

The airline’s battle for survival was additional difficult by, what Branson claims, have been interventions by its bitter rival. Branson’s decades-long feud with British Airways spans the “dirty tricks” scandal of the early Nineties and in 2012 betting Willie Walsh, the flag provider’s chief, that Virgin Atlantic would survive the next 5 years. Walsh famously pledged to take a “knee to the groin” if he was unsuitable.

Because of its stronger funds and larger scale, BA’s mum or dad firm IAG acquired billions of kilos in state-backed loans from the UK and Spanish governments. BA “played a blinder” throughout the pandemic, Branson says. “Why were there never any articles about the [money] that British Airways got from the Spanish government [and from] the British government?

“They performed a very good poker hand. Behind the scenes, they have been sticking the knife in. They have been saying they did not need assistance [and], simply hoping that we’d topple.”

Branson and the team at his airline were up for the fight, however. “We simply battened down the hatches. And everyone labored day and evening to show individuals unsuitable. I do not suppose anyone thought we would survive,” he says, staring intently. “I do not suppose you probably did, studying your articles.”

Ultimately, Branson rescued Virgin Atlantic “on the expense of one other child” – namely his space tourism company – Virgin Galactic.

As a listed company in the US, the entrepreneur was able to sell his shares in the business and use the proceeds to save his airline.

He says: “[It was] in the identical manner that when, many, a few years in the past, BA tried to drive Virgin Atlantic out of enterprise – I needed to promote Virgin Records to maintain issues on monitor.”

The toll that the pandemic has left on Branson is plain to see. He may have been thousands of miles away in the Caribbean, but it was hard not to take the attacks personally.

A new edition of his memoir, Losing My Virginity, will be released later this year with a section that sets out the pain of those difficult months.

“I saved a diary. And I’ve written precisely how I felt about it within the e-book that covers the Covid time and it covers the profitable house launch on the finish of it.

“I was fortunate I had my kids and grandkids on the island. And so you realise there are other very important things.

“It was a horrible, horrible time. But from our perspective our model is now stronger than it was in 2019.”

Branson has made little secret of his opposition to Brexit. He has called it a “multi-generational catastrophe” in the past. He refrains, however, from saying the UK’s current cost of living crisis – with soaring inflation outstripping countries on the continent – is an ‘I told you so’ moment.

“I’ve made my place clear that I imagine that the UK will undergo for not being a part of Europe,” he says.

“I nonetheless imagine that to be the case, we’ll simply let historical past resolve whether or not that’s the case or not.”

At an event in downtown Austin a day after our interview, he cannot stop himself having a pop at ministers over the impending industrial action on Britain’s railways.

After being at the vanguard of privatisation, Virgin ran its last rail service in December 2019 after its bid to run the west coast line was deemed to have breached tendering rules.

“We reworked the British rail community, the workers had beloved working for Virgin,” he says, shortly after kissing the shoe of a British journalist whose bag Virgin Atlantic had lost on the inaugural flight. “I discover the workers are on the verge of getting a strike. That would not have occurred when Virgin was operating it.”

These days, Branson is arguably most outspoken about the Russian war against Ukraine.

Earlier this month he criticised Emmanuel Macron, the French president, over his calls to avoid “humiliating” Russia. Branson hit back on Twitter, describing the remarks as “insensitive and unsuitable”.

“I used to be vital of the phrase he used,” he says. “I used to be positively shocked that he used that phrase as a result of, you realize, I feel if you’re in such a conflict scenario, every thing’s obtained to be very clear.

“If you go back to the Second World War, if he’d been living in London, as de Gaulle, it was black and white – he wanted the Germans out of France. And I think it should be black and white until the Ukrainians decide differently.

“What Putin has introduced upon the world is unforgivable.

“It’s not just Ukraine, that’s at risk. It’s Poland, there’s so many potential countries that could be at risk if we don’t stand firm.”

Branson says he’s in common contact with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.

He had hoped that “The Elders”, a non-governmental organisation based by Nelson Mandela and funded by Branson, may have prevented hostilities breaking out within the first place.

“I spoke with him [Zelensky] before the invasion on a couple of occasions because we have an organisation called The Elders that attempts to stop conflicts.

“And I used to be simply making an attempt to see if there was something we may do to attempt to assist type of bridge the hole between Ukraine and Russia.

“I spoke with him the day after the invasion. He contacted us about whether we would consider – I think at that stage he did not believe that Putin was going to go as far as he was – he wanted to know if we could throw a concert in the Donbas region. And we are now looking at doing something in Poland.”

Ukraine apart, Branson is evidently in a greater place and decided to place a troublesome couple of years behind him.

“It’s one of the most satisfying moments of my life, having the team [at Virgin Atlantic] confound everybody,” he says.

That Virgin Atlantic is even nonetheless flying is one thing to be pleased with, he suggests. Well-known manufacturers reminiscent of Pan-Am, Trans World Airlines and British Caledonian have fallen by the wayside because the first flight took off from Gatwick all these years in the past.

“If I go back 38 years to the inaugural flight of Virgin Atlantic and I just remember sitting there looking around the cabin, with my wife and my daughter, Holly, sitting on my lap. And thinking: ‘Can this airline in 20 or 30 years time be as special as it is today?’

“Every flight is nearly nearly as good because it was on that very first flight.”

“Yes, Virgin Atlantic and myself, all of us obtained attacked. But we have all come out actually, actually robust.”

“I feel we proved any critics unsuitable,” he says, fixing his gaze once more. Then he smiles.

The Telegraph, London