In 1971, when he was getting going in the music business, Branson was caught evading purchase tax in the UK. Since then he has been very careful about when he pays tax and to whom. He owns property in a wide variety of locations, though his primary base is his ‘holiday’ home on the island of Necker. His wish to avoid being taxed by the British government means he cannot spend more than ninety days a year in the UK. Given his peripatetic movements few other governments can lay a hand on him either. His businesses are registered under complex schemes across a range of different jurisdictions, including the Virgin Islands, where the holding company for Virgin Trains (very much a UK business) happens to be based. Branson has spent forty years denying he is a tax avoider and for the most part his reputation as a carefree spirit, partying his way around the globe, has trumped the idea that he is just another cautious plutocrat squirrelling away his wealth.
As Bower reports, Branson’s record in launching new products and breaking into competitive markets is pretty lamentable. The Virgin brand has been attached to a wide range of things – from cosmetics to cola to Formula One racing cars to retail outlets to reality TV shows to alternative fuels – that have either failed to sell or failed to work or both. Many of these products were complete turkeys. Branson’s racing car barely got off the grid (his designers had come up with a vehicle whose fuel tank was too small to run at full speed for an entire race; his team finished its two seasons in Formula One bottom of the constructors’ table). His TV show, designed to compete in the US with Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, bombed because no one wanted to watch a smug, tongue-tied Brit pretending to be a serious entrepreneur. The programme was called The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best and the idea was to put contestants through a series of stunts to test their mettle. These included getting them to dance naked on stage and to walk on a tightrope strung between two hot-air balloons. All very Branson – it’s the kind of thing he does all the time – but viewers found it hard to see what any of this had to do with the real business of business. Trump relished the show – it made him look like a genius.