English entrepreneur who created one of Britain's best-known brands, Virgin, and whose wide-ranging business empire (encompassing music, travel, soft drinks, Internet and financial services, mobile phones, bridal wear, clothing, and cosmetics) is reportedly worth £4 billion (in 2006).
His businesses include the Virgin Music label (launched 1973, sold to Thorn-EMI for $1 billion in 1992), Virgin Atlantic Airways (launched 1984), Virgin Direct personal finance services (launched 1995), Virgin Trains (launched 1997), and Virgin Mobile (launched 1999). Branson is also known for his attempts to break records of distance, in both boats and hot-air balloons.
He was knighted in 1999 for services to entrepreneurship.
Early years Branson was born in Surrey, England, and educated at Stowe public school. Aged 17, he started a student advisory service and then launched a national magazine, Student, which three years later he used as a vehicle to start a mail order record company.
Music industry Having opened his first Oxford Street store in London in 1971 and his first recording studio in 1972, he launched the Virgin record label in 1973, signing Mike Oldfield whose album Tubular Bells sold over 5 million copies. Other musicians who later signed included the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, and Culture Club. At the time of Virgin Music's sale to Thorn-EMI in 1992, it was the world's sixth largest record label. Branson launched the rock music station Virgin Radio in 1993 and V2 records in 1996.
Travel industry In 1984 Branson formed his most recognizable brand, Virgin Atlantic Airways, which has won major awards, including Airline of the Year on a number of occasions.
Virgin Trains operates two major UK rail franchises: West Coast Trains and CrossCountry Trains.
Other ventures As chair of the non-profit making People's Lottery, Branson lost in two bids to run the UK National Lottery. He sponsors a Fellowship in Entrepreneurship at Oxford University (which identifies up-and-coming businesses) and is a trustee of several charities, including the Healthcare Foundation, which campaigns for AIDS education and against tobacco sponsorship in sport. He has also given support to Comic Relief fundraising efforts.
Record-breaking attempts Since 1985, Branson has received much media attention from his record-breaking distance attempts. His boat Virgin Atlantic Challenger II broke the record for crossing the Atlantic. The next year, Virgin Atlantic Flyer, his hot air balloon, was the first to cross the Atlantic. In 1991 he broke the Pacific record by crossing from Japan to Arctic Canada, but in 1999 lost in the race to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe.