By Tom Bower
Published by Faber & Faber (£20)
(Buy at Amazon)
Investigative journalist Tom Bower seems a bit obsessed with Richard Branson. His first biography of the tycoon (Branson) was published in 2000, with a revised version in 2008. Both took a broadly negative view, but failed to come up with a smoking gun.
“Bower has been taking bites out of Richard Branson for 15 years, without ever quite digesting the entire man,” says Nicholas Blincoe in The Daily Telegraph. Branson: Behind The Mask, which focuses on the past decade, is an attempt to nail him once and for all.
The most interesting revelations come from Bower’s dig into Branson’s Virgin Galactic project, an overhyped attempt to sell “space travel” (in reality a sub-orbital flight).
Despite receiving over£40m in deposits, and huge subsidies from the state of New Mexico, it has missed many deadlines and suffered several mishaps (including an explosion that left three people dead). Even now there are problems with the engine supposed to power the shuttle.
A rival project from Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk is, by contrast, going smoothly. Bower makes the case that this mix of bluster and underperformance is common to many parts of the Virgin empire. Yet Branson has a knack for getting people to buy into the illusion.
In several cases, notes Bower, he has negotiated one-sided partnership deals, giving him parts of established firms in return for vague promises of advertising and sponsorship, which never materialise. When these deals unravel, Branson is adept at limiting his financial responsibility and reputational damage.
But while this picture is hardly flattering, it isn’t exactly earth-shattering either. Indeed, some might applaud Branson’s skill at getting other people to pay for his dreams as the mark of a good negotiator.
Similarly, the hypocrisy of lecturing people on climate change while running a global airline is simply irritating (or amusing, depending on your point of view) rather than damning. Even Bower’s point that Branson’s “empire has shrunk and his relative wealth has diminished” could have benefited from a much more detailed analysis of Branson’s net wealth.
Reviews have been mixed. “All journalists would benefit from reading Branson: Behind The Mask”, reckons Roy Greenslade in The Guardian. But there is little here “that is not already known about Galactic’s dismal record so far”, says The Daily Beast’s Clive Irving.
And while there are some “nuggets of pure gold”, says Dominic O’Connell in The Sunday Times, “the book fails to discover much about the man himself”. In short, it’s unlikely to change your pre-existing view of Branson.
• Branson: Behind The Mask by Tom Bower is published by Faber & Faber (£20).