I have met some pretty strange ones in my time but I think the weirdest is Richard Branson. Why weird? Because he is to me, a mass of contradictions. He is sincerely insincere. He is brashly sensitive. He may not be what he appears to be on a minute by minute basis. Or put another way, I would not trust him with my granny but I am sure she would say he is such a nice man. I think he is like an entrepreneurial Tony Blair.
OK, I will confess. He makes me cringe. The cheesy smile, the wacky publicity seeking dressing up and the cheeky chappie mannerisms drive me to distraction and are even worse when he is doing it right next to you. I also think he treats women appallingly but at least he seems to have stopped picking them up and flipping them head over heels in public like he used to.
The first time I experienced his Jekyll and Hide personality was on the Virgin Atlantic inaugural trip to Hong Kong. There was a mix of press, travel industry people and corporate VIPs but Richard only had eyes for the newspaper journalists and he was excellent in the way he handled them. He was being briefed all the time by his PR people who whispered feedback into his ear and suggested who he should work on. For example one of his aids found out that a journalist had mentioned that he had left a sick son at home just to come on this trip but Richard had not spoken much to him. Within a minute Richard had located him, embraced him and called him by his first name. He explained how personally pleased he was that the columnist had made the journey despite his sick son and how keen he was to talk to him. The man was on cloud nine and Richard wandered off to use his talents on the next stranger. Pure class.
At the same time as he was working his miracles he was also creating antagonisms elsewhere .Top people from top companies were watching these routines and feeling their own egos being bruised. Some began to wonder why they had come along only to be treated like also-rans. You see that is the trouble with people like Richard. If you perform like that everyone wants a slice of it and gets annoyed if they don’t. If Richard is there and spreads his aura then any of his long suffering team becomes second best in many guests’ eyes and envy grows. As for me? I don’t think he addressed a word to me the whole trip….but I’m not bitter!
My next brush was far more personal. I had been contacted by Virgin and invited to have lunch with Richard at his private home. After I had got over the surprise I willingly set off to his house in a beautiful leafy lane west of Bayswater. It was a big and relaxed home full of family photos, toys and knick knacks and a liberal spread of dust and dog fur. A true home. Richard arrived, greeted us warmly and invited me and the rest of his travel agency guests to relax around his big old oak dining table. Very homely.
The lunch started and it was not very long before the main real agenda was made clear. In short Richard wanted to take the opportunity to rubbish British Airways and encourage us to do similar. It was extremely embarrassing and I felt compelled to gently tell him that I did not share his negative views about his key competitor. This proved unpopular. Richard only just stopped short of calling me a bloody idiot. In fact maybe he didn’t stop short? It did however mean that this particular subject faded away and other issues about Virgin were raised. Avoiding the risk of Richard being rude to me again I found something nice to say about Virgin which was not difficult as I admire them greatly. There was a pause and then Richard turned to me and said ‘You know John (he got my name wrong) that was the first sensible thing you have said today”. You could have heard a pin drop and I replied “you know John; I am still waiting for yours”! Indigestion all round.
The weirdest thing about this lunch is what somebody told me about the house afterwards although I cannot prove conclusively that it is true. I was told that the lunch house was his ‘entertaining home’ and that his real residence was next door. They said he gets his people to duplicate what he has in his real place right down to the photos, toys and dog hairs. Could it really be true? If it is it kind of puts into life my perceptions of Richard Branson. A complex man who only shares himself with some but tries to make all feel close. A genius in some things. Loose cannon in others. But despite his possible weaknesses he is one of the most enduring and wealthy self-made multimillionaires in the world today.