For the past week I have been travelling around the world with possibly the most famous businessman alive today: Sir Richard Branson. I have been Passepartout to Sir Richard's Phileas Fogg as we travelled from London to Hong Kong, Sydney, Los Angeles and back again to London. We have logged more than 40 hours flying time and my body clock is now so confused I am struggling to tell night from day.
Sir Richard launched his first company at the age of 15 and has gone on to set up hundreds more in sectors as diverse and space travel, mobile phones and soft drinks.
The Virgin Group, which is the umbrella company for the numerous Virgin enterprises, has revenues of over $10 billion (Dh36.7bn) a year and Sir Richard himself has been estimated to be worth about $2bn.
Having spent a week in close proximity with Sir Richard, the most striking thing about him is that he is remarkably down to earth.
I have met chief executives from companies that are a fraction of the size of the Virgin Group who are as aloof as rock stars.
Sir Richard, by contrast, appears to enjoy meeting staff and members of the public and is constantly posing for photographs or signing autographs.
I have also discovered in the past week that despite being 58, Sir Richard is a hard man to keep up with. He jumped off our day-long London to Sydney flight and flew straight to Melbourne to open a new Virgin Active gym. He then flew back to Sydney for dinner with Cate Blanchett, the actress.
Meanwhile, Sir Richard's entourage blundered around Sydney like the living dead and had passed out by 9pm.
Our journey around the world was part of a promotional trip to publicise the launch of V Australia, Sir Richard's newest airline.
It will operate services from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles and is the final link in Virgin's global network. Passengers can now travel around the world without leaving the Virgin family - as we have proved in the past week to the detriment of our carbon footprints.
However, the trip has also allowed Sir Richard to catch up with various other parts of the Virgin empire. Virgin Active is expanding rapidly in Australia and he opened gyms in both Melbourne and Sydney. At the Sydney opening, Sir Richard raced against the Australian Olympic swim team in a typically extravagant publicity stunt. Sir Richard's team won narrowly, although only after the hands and legs of the Olympic swimmers were tied – the event made evening news bulletins across Australia.
If any of this promotional work is a chore, Sir Richard is careful not to let it show because everything in the Virgin universe is supposed to be fun and cool.
That is what the brand stands for but like any corporate message it can occasionally feel contrived or forced, although I imagine that even a dull day on planet Branson is more fun than the most interesting day at any other firm.
Take, for example, the launch party for V Australia in Sydney last week.
With the economic downturn taking a grip on countries such as Australia and airlines feeling the pinch more than most, it would have been understandable for Virgin to push for a low-key launch for V. No. Instead, Sir Richard hired an island in Sydney harbour and invited a couple of thousand celebrities, media and Virgin employees for a massive party that featured live bands, free beverages and various other entertainments.
Sir Richard arrived in a helicopter flanked by a couple of stunning flight attendants, the crowd went wild and the woman in front of me became hysterical after Sir Richard kissed her on his way past.
Steve Jobs or Bill Gates might generate that sort of enthusiasm among the geekiest of technophiles but it is hard to imagine any other businessman generating the sort of interest or excitement that Branson does. After Sydney we flew to Los Angeles and another party, this time at the exclusive Chateau Marmont hotel in Beverley Hills. This was a smaller affair (only 400 people) but with a much higher ratio of celebrities and we rubbed shoulders with Oscar nominees and Hollywood starlets, which was a massive improvement on the CEOs, executives and communications directors that I usually spend my working days with.
This is what life on planet Branson is like. He works hard but he also plays hard and it is these characteristics that have come to define the Virgin brand.
And its success.
- David Robertson is Business correspondent of The Times of London
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