Branson’s brushes with bigwigs
Money aside, there are plenty of perks to being a billionaire – such as rubbing shoulders with presidents, supermodels and film stars. In this extract from his new memoir British tycoon Richard Branson opens up about some of his most memorable encounters
I WAS in the bath when Nelson Mandela rang. The tub belonged to friends of mine, and was situated in their English country house where I was staying. I was having a proper soak, plenty of bubbles, and was relaxing to the point that I almost didn’t answer the phone. But, somehow, when Madiba rang, wherever you were, you always took the call.
“Richard,” he said, ignoring the sounds of splashing in the background and getting straight to the point, “you said you wanted to help out in South Africa . . .”
He and I had recently spent time together in Cape Town putting on an incredible concert to raise awareness about Aids. I’d just got back from South Africa, so I presumed he wanted to follow up on that.
“Yes, Madiba. You know I’m happy to help,” I responded, brushing the bubbles off the telephone cord.
“Well, we have a problem. Our biggest health business, the Health & Racquet Club, is about to collapse.” He explained that 5 000 people were going to lose their jobs and that a company that was one of the symbols of South African growth and progress was going under.
“Do you think you could save it?” he asked. “Do you think you could save the people?”
“I’m sure we can do something.” I tried to sound more assured than I was feeling. “I’ll be back on the next plane to Africa.”
In March 2001 we acquired all 76 Health & Racquet clubs for £24,5 million (then R319,6 million) [In 2015, South African listed company Brait paid R12 billion to acquire an 80% stake in the chain].
For the opening of the Melrose Arch club in Johannesburg, an occasion I’ll never forget, we were joined by Mandela. As he arrived, I noticed that he was hobbling slightly. “Are you okay?” I asked. “It’s my knees,” he explained. “They sometimes hurt from being in prison on Robben Island. The many, many hours breaking rocks.”
Not that they stopped him dancing with delight alongside our staff in the gym minutes later. It was an inspiring sight to watch him wandering through the club and seeing how his mere presence lit up people’s lives.
It was inspiring to see how Madiba’s mere presence lit up people’s lives
If it hadn’t been for Madiba’s call, these people wouldn’t have jobs.
This was just a tiny example of the hope and help he gave to South Africa and the world. He was a genuine entrepreneur as well as a monumental leader. Later he sat down with our family for a meal and was already on the lookout for another way to support his charities.
“That was a delightful lunch,” he thanked me, with a glint of mischief in his eye. “Now, last week I saw Bill Gates and he gave us $50 million . . .” Ouch!
In late 1999, Bill Gates and his wonderful wife Melinda flew out to spend the Easter holidays on Necker Island [Branson’s private island in the British Virgin Islands]. I’ve long been inspired by Bill for his computing genius but in particular his compassion. I was in awe of how he’d transformed his life from focusing upon Microsoft, a business that had changed the world, to looking at how to give back to others. Bill has an acutely sharp brain and a unique way of looking at the world. He hones in on specifics and is an expert on subjects ranging from gaming to global health. Melinda is an incredibly smart woman, too. She told us all about her research into malaria, Aids and tuberculosis and it was fascinating watching Bill listen and learn from his wife. He asked lots of questions and it was interesting to discover that, like me, he’s an avid note-taker. He can be chatty, but would certainly agree with Doug Larson’s quote: “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” Bill and I are very different characters, but have a lot more in common than our no t eb o o k s
and cheque books.
We got talking about water sports and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he used to race sailing boats. “I thought you’d be too busy on computers to get out on the water,” I joked.
I wasn’t laughing for long. Heading out into the ocean, we raced around the British Virgin Islands, where Bill proved his sea legs and gave me a run for my money! We were equally well matched on the tennis court, as well, where our match was tied at two sets each.
“Let’s call it an honourable draw,” I suggested, overcoming my competitive instinct in the name of friendship.
Something else we had in common was our shared respect for Nelson Mandela. Over dinner, a fish supper whipped up and eaten at a table on the tennis court, he told me that meeting Madiba had changed his life.
“Mandela taught me about living,” Bill said. He went on to explain how meeting the most respected person in the world had set him on a new path, combining the spheres of capitalism and charity.
This struck a chord with me. By the end of Bill and Melinda’s stay, I felt similarly inspired. I wanted to follow suit, and find a way to shift my own focus further towards doing my part in helping others.
In the early ’90s, Donald invited me to lunch at his apartment in Manhattan. I was intrigued. The invitation had come somewhat out of the blue. I turned up to an apartment that was undoubtedly opulent, but not as flashy as I’d anticipated. That was not the only part of the lunch that didn’t turn out as expected.
Even before the starters had arrived, Donald was warming to what he wanted to talk to me about: the various people he was planning to take revenge on for refusing his request for help.
“I phoned 10 people for financial help when I was in trouble,” he said. “Five of those people said they wouldn’t help me.” This rejection had not gone down well: Donald went on to spend the rest of this bizarre lunch telling me how he was going to dedicate his life to destroying those five people.
“I don’t think that’s the best way of spending your time,” I told him when I could get a word in. “This is going to eat you up, and do more damage to you than them. You’d be far better forgiving them.”
Donald just shook his head and carried on explaining at length how and why he was going to destroy each of them in turn. “These people didn’t help me when I needed them. They turned their back on me,” he continued to vent.
I left his apartment feeling quite sorry for him. After that meal I didn’t hear from Trump for more than a decade. Then, in 2004, my television show The Rebel Billionaire went on air. When Fox offered me the opportunity to host a TV show designed to encourage the adventurous streaks in other entrepreneurs, it was an easy decision to accept.
Trump, by now the host of The Apprentice, didn’t take kindly to having a rival.
He fired off the following letter on 12 November 2004: “Dear Richard, . . . now that I’ve watched your show, I wish you came to me and asked my advice – I’d have told you not to bother. You have no television persona and, as I found out with others a long time ago, if it’s not there there’s not a thing in the world you can do about it. At least your dismal ratings can now allow you to concentrate on your airline which, I’m sure, needs every ounce of your energy. It’s obviously a terrible business and I can’t imagine, with fuel prices etc, that you can be doing any better in it than anyone else. Like television, you should try to get out of the airline business too, as soon as possible!
Actually, I wonder out loud how you can be anywhere close to a billionaire and be in that business. Perhaps the title of your show, The Rebel Billionaire, is misleading?
In any event, don’t use me to promote your rapidly sinking show – you’re a big boy, try doing it yourself! Sincerely, Donald J Trump”
There are few people more rock ’n roll than Kate Moss. When she’s on Necker she can usually be seen on top of the Great House table, dancing away day and night. I’ve rarely seen anyone work so hard and play even harder.
Part and parcel of the supermodel territory is having to put up with a lot of press intrusion. I got an insight into Kate’s world when I took a call one Friday morning from the News of the World. The reporter told me they were running a front-page splash that I had a cocaine-fuelled threesome with Kate and Keith Richards in the master bedroom on Necker Island.
“We’ve got this on very good authority,” the journalist assured me. My first thought was: what a great story – do I really have to set them straight?
“Well, I’m very flattered,” I joked with them. “But I’m afraid Keith has never visited Necker. Sorry to ruin your splash.” Common sense prevailed and they didn’t run the story. I don’t think Joan [Branson’s wife] would’ve been too pleased if they had. Plus, it wouldn’t have helped Kate’s image – although it might’ve helped mine and Keith’s!
In October 2001, around eight months after launching iTunes, Apple released the first iPod. Now there was a slick
There are few people more rock ‘n roll than Kate Moss. She works hard and plays even harder
service for people to download music on cheaply, and a stylish device to play it on.
When I spoke to Steve Jobs [Apple’s CEO] about the iPod, he told me he’d got his inspiration from an idea I’d had back in the ’80. I gave an interview to Music Week on 1 April 1986 revealing we were secretly developing a Music Box, which could store every song in the world, and allow people to download any music they wanted for a small fee.
“BRANSON’S BOMBSHELL” ran the headline. Four giant computers around Britain would store all the music and it would spell “the end of the music industry as we know it”. Scientists at a topsecret location I couldn’t reveal “due to fears of industrial espionage” had designed the technology, I claimed.
That afternoon my phone was ringing off the hook with nervous record company CEOs who begged us to cancel the idea. At noon we put them out of their misery, revealing it was an April Fool’s joke.
When I met Steve in San Francisco many years later, he smiled at me and said: “Loved the article, by the way.” “Which article?” ”The Music Box – I loved the concept. Always thought it was a good idea.”
When the technology caught up with his imagination, the result was the iPod. So it’s entirely possible I’d inadvertently played a small part in killing my own business. Too late, we tried to react and launched our own online music store, Virgin Digital, on 2 September 2005, and our own MP3 player. We had one of the world’s biggest music libraries, with more than 2,5 million songs available to download. But after spending £20 million developing Virgin Digital, we realised our products just didn’t have the simplicity, or the scale of production, to compete with Apple. We had to take it on the chin, and wrote off big losses as we shut down Virgin Digital two years later.
We’ve worked with [human rights lawyer] Amal Clooney on issues ranging from the refugee crisis to death penalty abolition. She and her husband George Clooney joined us for a Virgin Unite gathering on Necker Island where Amal gave a powerful talk on disrupting to protect human rights.
There was time for lighter moments, too. I reminded George of the time he was asked who he’d exchange places with for a day, given the chance. Very generously, he suggested he’d happily swap with yours truly. My wife instantly replied: “Deal!”
“We’re free!” The first words out of Michelle Obama’s mouth as we greeted them on Moskito [the other island Branson owns in the British Virgin Islands] were full of delight and happiness. Since I’d last seen Barack and Michelle Obama, Donald Trump had been inaugurated as the new US president.
Getting away from the madness of Washington, they’d accepted our invitation to come and visit. I’ve never been one for reserve and Barack and Michelle were eager to do away with formalities, too. When one of our team asked how to address the former first lady she gleefully shouted: “Michelle! It’s so nice to have my name back after eight years.”
As well as relaxing, the Obamas were also eager to get active. In addition to kite-surfing we also played competitive doubles tennis, pool and snooker and a few holes of golf. I quickly realised Barack is a superb natural sportsman. I’m proud to say I won our chess duel, though!
It was lovely to see the esteem in which everybody held the Obamas, and the warmth they gave back.
I asked Barack how hopeful he was for the future, and he told me Michelle has more of a glass half-empty attitude, whereas he’s a more glass half-full type of person. While all the news coming out of the US was about Trump trying to dismantle all he’d worked so hard for, his attitude was just to get on with his life, have a well-deserved holiday and recharge.
Over the 10 days they stayed we had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs and became good friends.
On the last night they had the delightful idea of holding a party for all the staff on Necker and Moskito they’d come into contact with. Alongside Holly [Branson’s daughter] and myself, they were the first up onto the bar dancing with us, getting the party going, making everybody feel at home and welcome.
There were a couple of local women who looked a bit lonely on the sidelines, watching other people enjoying themselves. Barack and Michelle made a point of going over to them, inviting them into the group and dancing with them. They made time for everybody. When they left Michelle told us it was the first time she’d felt teary at the end of a holiday. “Can we just bottle this up and keep this vibe?” she asked.
We went down to the dock and all the staff and I threw ourselves into the ocean as we waved them goodbye. They’re just the most genuine, decent, wonderful people. I can’t wait to see what brilliant things they go on to do next and, if I can, support them along the way.
THIS IS AN EDITED EXTRACT FROM FINDING MY VIRGINITY BY RICHARD BRANSON, PUBLISHED BY VIRGIN BOOKS, R250 FROM TAKEALOT.COM © RICHARD BRANSON 2017
PRICE CORRECT AT THE TIME OF GOING TO PRINT AND SUBJECT TO CHANGE WITHOUT NOTICE.
FAR LEFT: Richard Branson moved heaven and earth to support Nelson Mandela’s charitable endeavours. MIDDLE LEFT: With future US president Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, in 2002. LEFT: Teaming up with Microsoft founder Bill Gates at an event in London last year.
FAR LEFT: Posing with supermodel Kate Moss in London during Virgin’s 25th birthday festivities in 2009. LEFT: A Lighthearted moment with Barack Obama on Necker, his private island, earlier this year. BELOW: The former US president tries his hand at kite-surfing.