Richard Branson – Founder? Investor? Manager?

Every month or so, I get an invite to an entrepreneur webinar with an impressive grouping of speakers. Each speaker’s biography shares his or her most impressive actions to date, like this excerpt describing Richard Branson, “Founder of the Virgin Group, a conglomerate of more than 400 companies and one of the most dynamic global brands.” A statement like that is designed to draw interest, and it did draw mine. It also made me wonder what role Branson played in the founding of those 400 companies. Some sources imply a very active, personal role, and others are more vague. So what is the truth? Who is Richard Branson? According to Britannica, Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson (born July 18, 1950) is a “British entrepreneur and adventurer, head of Virgin Group Ltd., known for his publicity stunts and also for setting records in powerboat racing and hot-air ballooning.”  Another encyclopedia that we know and love, Wikipedia, describes him as “an English business magnate, investor, author and former philanthropist. In the 1970s he founded the Virgin Group, which today controls more than 400 companies in various fields.” That’s a little more like the definition I typically see in speaking profiles. Wikipedia also provides a timeline of Branson’s business ventures, which would seem to imply a direct role from him for each venture. But should it? (I’ll note here that most of the timeline is unsourced, and most statements are “Virgin did x, y, z,” and not Branson.) The Virgin Conglomerate – 400 companies? Okay, so what about those 400 companies? Branson founded Virgin Mail Order Records in 1970 and then Virgin Records in 1973. This was the beginning of the Virgin name. In 1984 he became the majority backer of an airline that he renamed Virgin Atlantic Airways.  A 2008 article states that Branson’s “empire” encompassed more than 50 companies by 1983. When trouble struck in the 1990s and Branson was forced to sell Virgin Records, he dealt with the disappointment by starting what he called “branded venture capital.” Under this strategy, Branson licenses the Virgin name – he manages a new business and supplies the name, usually in exchange for a controlling interest, while other partners supply the cash. Thanks to this method, in 2008, Branson owned or held interest in more than 200 companies. A description for Branson’s autobiography says that he “spawned” nearly a hundred successful ventures over twenty-five years. Okay, this gets us closer to that 400 number. Presumably Branson is selective about who gets to share in the Virgin name, but sharing your empire isn’t the same as founding hundreds of individual companies.  What about more recently?  This 2020 article says that Branson has “overseen” approximately 500 companies. As of January 2021, the Virgin site lists 49 companies, although some of those are simply different countries’ versions of the same company (Virgin Active Australia, Virgin Active Italy, Virgin Active Singapore, etc.). Branson’s official biography shares that he spends most of his time working with Virgin Unite (the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, established in 2004 by Branson) and its incubated organizations, and building businesses, but it doesn’t list specifics. What’s the truth? Richard Branson has had quite the entrepreneurial career. He created a successful business, and has good business sense that he’s used advantageously to grow other businesses and his own net worth. But did he actually found 400 companies? No. He’s invested in, managed, and overseen hundreds of companies – which, don’t get me wrong, is a hugely impressive accomplishment – but he wasn’t a founding member for each business. Is Richard Branson a speaker worth your time? I’ll assume so, although I’ve never had the opportunity to hear him in person. He’s been in the business world for decades, and I’m sure he has interesting stories to share and a lot of experience to impart. But sometimes when we hear something that sounds much, much larger than life – it is.

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