A really great read about one of the best known billionaires. Once upon a time, Richard Branson was a high-school dropout with some big ideas. Today, his Virgin Group controls more than 300 companies. His parents, Eve and Ted, reflect on the less-than-traditional child-rearing methods that brought up a billionaire.
Meet The Bransons
By JOSHUA LEVINE
You meet four of Richard Branson’s parents as you walk into the Tudor-paneled living room of their sprawling estate in West Wittering on the southern coast of England. There’s Eve and Ted Branson today; she’s a coquettish 86 and he’s a stately 93. It’s his birthday, and the couple are waiting impatiently for their three children and 11 grandchildren to turn up for a big bash.
Then there are the other two, hanging on the wall—the painted Eve and Ted as they looked just after their marriage in 1949. He looks resolute and dashing in a cavalry officer’s uniform. She is a dewy English rose in a flower-print summer dress. Richard’s school friends must have been desperately in love with her.
They look like they stepped straight out of “Mrs. Miniver,” but life wasn’t easy in the village of Shamley Green, Surrey, where Richard grew up. Ted was struggling to make a career as a barrister. He had wanted to be an archaeologist—his own father was a High Court judge, though, so his path was laid out. Perhaps this is why Richard was given remarkably free rein to find his own way. Richard describes his father as a quiet figure, fond of his pipe and newspaper.
Eve is another story: onetime dancer, air hostess, glider pilot and all-around pistol. However, when Richard, her eldest, came along in 1950, she stopped working even though money was tight. In the Branson family government, Ted was the reassuring home secretary and Eve was a feisty minister of pluck.
Richard, his wife, Joan, their two children and his parents were all planning to fly into space whenever Richard launches Virgin Galactic, his commercial space-flight venture. “Between you, me and the gatepost,” Ted told me conspiratorially, “I suspect it’s as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.” We pray that he’s wrong. Just before publication, Ted Branson passed away in his sleep.
Everybody says Richard gets his gumption from you. Did you do anything in particular to foster that?
EVE: Well, I didn’t want him to be a namby-pamby little boy like all the other little boys. He was timid, so I used to make him perform. I said, “When you’re timid, you’re just thinking of yourself! Think of the other person—put him at ease, get him a drink.” I used to get very cross when he was shy.
There’s a story that you dropped him on a hillside nearby when he was 5 years old and made him find his way back home. That’s just terrible!
EVE: No it isn’t! It’s made him who he is today! He was a naughty boy, and it took some of the energy out of him. But he got lost at the end. He knocked on a farmer’s door—he’s had his head well-screwed-on all his life—and the farmer rang me up and said, “Have you got a blue-eyed boy who’s gone missing?” I said, “My goodness, yes,” but I admit that by this time even I was worried—I thought, “My God, you’ve really done it this time!”
What did he get from his father?
EVE: I think he found his father quiet and comforting, and he needed that. I’m too much like him. Ted would say, “Yes, dear boy,” even when he was being naughty. He had his father twisted around his little finger, but he needed the mixture of the two of us.
TED: You need to show them love, so when they go off in the morning they can stick their chest out and say, “I’m a man.” Would you agree with that, darling?
EVE: They certainly need a lot of love so they know you’re behind them whatever they do, well, more or less.
Was he naughty in school?
EVE: Let’s say he was unusual at school. We didn’t know whether he was 99 percent stupid and 1 percent rather exceptional. We hung on to that 1 percent. Not everybody would want a son like that, but I’m quite glad now, mind you.
Were there any early signs that you were raising a great entrepreneur?
EVE: When he was 15, there were the budgerigars. He was going to sell them, but they kept multiplying and we were left looking after all these birds when he went off to boarding school. One day I said, “I can’t take this, I’m going to open all the cages and let them go free.” And I did. He didn’t mind particularly. Next he thinks, “I will buy little baby Christmas trees and make my fortune when they’re big enough.” We helped him plant them on the property. Then rabbits ate them. But by then he was doing his magazine, and that was more successful.
TED: We thought it was a school magazine, but it was a national magazine called Student.
EVE: Richard told us, “I want to leave school to start a magazine. If I can pass an A-level [an English secondary-school exam], do you promise me I can leave school?” We said all right.
TED: I wouldn’t have left when he did, but he was determined. I felt he hadn’t gotten enough education, but I also felt this was something he should find out for himself.
Did you expect him to fall on his face?
TED: Oh yes.
EVE: I really started him off. He had made friends with a vicar in London who let him use the crypt in his church to produce the magazine, so he and his little friends sat on the floor amongst all the coffins. One day I was going around London, and I found a pearl necklace. The police said if nobody claimed it in a month, it was mine. I didn’t know if it was real or not, but a jeweler took a risk and gave me 100 pounds for it. I went down to the church and said, “You’re not going to get it all in one go, but every time I come up to London, I’ll give you 10 pounds.” And Richard said, “Oh come on, hand it all over,” and of course I gave in and he was able to launch the magazine.
I gather he had a dicey moment in his next venture when he was caught selling discount records designated for export only. I believe you had to remortgage your home to pay the tax authorities what he owed plus a hefty fine.
EVE: That was pretty horrifying for the both of us.
TED: It was very distressing, very distressing. But Richard reacted first, and he was so full of remorse that all we could do was to stand by him. He paid the money off in installments, so in fact he doesn’t have a conviction.
When did you start to breathe a little easier about him?
TED: When British Airways was trying to destroy Virgin Atlantic Airways and there was a lawsuit, and in order to win it, he had to sell his record company. He sold it for 600 million pounds, I think it was, and then one realized that he was showing considerable promise. But what one does know when one has learned enough about life is that if it comes fairly easily, it can go fairly easily. And so only in comparatively recent years did I feel that he’s got enough now to face up to whatever the world throws at him.
What has made you proudest—it can’t be the money?
TED: I was in Leicester Square and two of his shows were playing, and everybody was calling out, “Richard, Richard!” Everybody calls him Richard from the lowest office boy on up. Nobody calls him Richard Branson or Sir Richard. This makes me very proud.