Branson by Tom Bower

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Branson by Tom Bower

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A very readable but possibly slanted biography of Richard Branson.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: January 2008
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 978-0007266760

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What I have read has offended me on every single level..... It is a foul, foul piece of work from the first words to the last - really rotten, nasty stuff. No, it's OK, that's not my view, that's what Richard Branson thinks about Tom Bower's unauthorized biography. I don't think Sir Richard is very fond of Mr Bower.

On the other hand, Tom Bower doesn't seem to have any liking for his subject. He begins by telling of the early influence of Branson's mother, Eve, who, with her cry of "Do something, Ricky!" pushed her son into performing daredevil stunts, and encouraged him to use publicity as a way of distracting attention from the less creditable parts of his life, of which there was no shortage.

His first business venture was a student magazine, whose main rival was Time Out. Rather than seek to be better than Time Out Branson sought to bring it down - a technique used throughout his life - but his magazine still failed. His first success and the foundation of his fortune was Virgin Records, but the success of the company was at least partly, if not wholly, due to the fact that Branson found a way of evading purchase tax on his sales, and he was convicted for the offence. Even this could be turned to good use - "a turning point in his life", "everything now to be done by the book", only you get the feeling that Branson is the one writing the book. His staff was badly paid (a feature of his business life which never seems to have changed), whilst he was building up a fortune in off-shore trust funds.

The next big venture was Virgin Atlantic, and here the main rival was British Airways, and we have the so-called "dirty tricks campaign". Newspaper reporting and quotes from Branson certainly put the opprobrium squarely onto B.A.'s shoulders, and it cannot be denied that the situation was ineptly handled by B.A., but the truth would seem to be that Branson blew up a situation in order to gain an advantage for himself and Virgin Atlantic.

Branson has a butterfly mind, and any venture that he has undertaken has lacked attention to detail. He has never been prepared to pay top dollar to get the best, or even reasonable, staff. Paying good money to staff was money that could have been in his pocket. Companies have lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis, with Branson always seeking publicity to cover the financial problems, and moving on, himself, to another project. The balloon trips were done simply for publicity, and the reality of the trips was that Branson was nothing more than a passenger, and at times a very panicky one. He was quick to tell of "near-death" events - but those with him in the balloons were hard-pressed to recognize them.

The People's Lottery was Branson's dream. He envisaged the publicity that he could have gleaned, and which would have benefitted his other enterprises, as he presented cheques to the winners, and to his charitable causes, but even here he lacked any attention to detail, failing even to have a supplier of terminals that had a track record of producing the number required. His view was that there could be no contest as his lottery would give all the profit (after fees to Virgin, naturally) to charity. In the event that his bid had been successful the probability is that the lottery would have descended into chaos.

I enjoyed the book immensely, but I do have two quibbles. The first is with the publisher. The cover speaks of "Sex, drugs and tantrums". Yes, the sex is there: Branson would seem to be sexually promiscuous, and yes, the tantrums are there, but the drug-taking doesn't seem to merit being mentioned on the cover, as it would not seem to have been more than many in society (including politicians) would cheerfully admit to. My other quibble is with Tom Bower. Everyone has redeeming features - sometimes those closest to an individual can't see them, whilst others can't see the faults, but a balanced view should give both. I was left with the feeling that Mr Bower was not being totally objective. It may be that Mr Bower is right - but then how has Virgin survived for so long?

The paperback version contains an update which covers his pay-TV battle with the Murdochs and the attempt to take over Northern Rock but it's a time when Branson has been less in the public eye and the borrowing of the hardback book might be a better bet than the purchase of the paperback.

You might also like to read Tom Bower's exposé of the scandal which is football Broken Dreams or for another in-depth look at how one man got to the top of his profession you might enjoy The Boss: The Many Sides of Alex Ferguson by Michael Crick. I enjoyed Bower's take on Tony Blair.

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