September 23, 2011

UK: Billionaire Richard Branson On Being A Rock Star Businessman

NEW YORK, NY / / September 19, 2011

The Beat Report
By Zack O'Malley Greenburg, Forbes Staff

Sir Richard Branson’s extracurricular résumé doesn’t necessarily scream “businessman.” The 61-year-old chairman of Virgin Group has hosted his own reality television show, appeared on Baywatch, and launched all manner of aeronautical escapades including an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon.

It’s all part of the package. Branson, whose personal fortune stands at $4.2 billion by FORBES’ latest estimate, is perhaps equal parts rock star and businessman. And in an age where every entertainer seems to be launching a clothing line or vodka brand, he has achieved a certain confluence of fame and moguldom, arriving from the opposite angle.

“There are a lot of rock stars who become businessmen,” he explains over hors d’oeuvres at an event hosted by watchmaker Bulova in New York. “But I think being a sort of rock star businessman is not something which is that common. I’ve ended up being that. It’s not what I planned to be, but through my ballooning and my boating adventures and outer space, I suppose that is what I have become.”

Richard Branson’s corporate résumé may be even more extensive than his list of adventures. After founding Virgin Records in 1972—and helping to launch the careers of bands including the Sex Pistols—the Britain-born billionaire moved on to start Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984 (which, at last week’s event, he said may be on the verge of a major alliance agreement), as well as Virgin Mobile in 1999 and a host of other ventures, including commercial space travel outfit Virgin Galactic.

Though Branson’s business ventures have been notable in their own right, there’s no doubt that his aerial exploits have drawn considerable attention to his companies. In his opinion, that’s something other executives could stand to do a bit more often.

“Too many businessmen, too many chair people, do not project themselves,” says Branson. “I do think it’s in the interests of their companies to get out on CNN, to become figureheads, to become ambassadors for their companies. And then if you do want to do good, you can do that on the back of it as well.”

To that end, Branson supports an array of causes through Virgin Unite, his non-profit foundation. He says he also gives about 30 speeches per year, raising $10 million for charity through that venue alone.

Interestingly, that translates to about $300,000 per appearance—about what a successful rock act might expect to take home as compensation for an arena show.

Branson’s association with Bulova follows a wristful of agreements between watchmakers and entertainers.

Rapper Jay-Z teamed up with Audemars Piguet years ago, and basketball star Dwyane Wade later became brand ambassador to Hublot, a watch recently shouted out by Jay-Z in his latest album. (“He came to Necker Island once,” says Branson of the rapper. “He’s great. He’s bright, intelligent … very pleasant.”)

All three instances represent a luxury goods provider aiming to add sizzle via celebrity sheen. The difference with Branson’s situation is that he became famous by being rich; the others got rich by being famous. As such, he’s got more money to spread around—the proceeds from his Bulova deal will go to charitable causes.

“Having become a global figure, you have a responsibility to not waste it,” he explains. “It means I can set up organizations like the Ocean Elders or the Carbon War Room or the CDC in Africa using my entrepreneurial skills and financial resources to do so … If you put your celebrity status to good use, you can make a big difference.”

Though Branson’s companies control hundreds of radio stations around the world and the annual Virgin-backed V Festival is among Europe’s biggest music events, he doesn’t regret leaving the record business years ago.

“As it turns out, that was quite a good move,” he says. “The music industry is really struggling. Live music is going great, radio stations will always continue to do well, those are the territories we think will continue to have a future.”

Will it possible for anybody to make money on recorded music going forward?

“Oof,” says Branson. “You’d have to be a better man than myself.”

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