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

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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.



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.

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