Google co-founder Larry Page got married last weekend in an event notable for the collective wealth of the guests.
The venue was Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands; the host was Sir Richard Branson who, to the surprise of some, doubled as best man.
Even allowing for the cosy nature of the billionaires' club, it seems an "unlikely friendship", says The Times. Yet the alliance part affectionate, part pragmatic is typical Branson.
Subscribe to MoneyWeek
Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE
Britain's most celebrated business buccaneer is renowned for his good fortune (note the lengthy catalogue of near-death experiences survived). But he knows how to make his own luck, too.
After nearly 40 years in business, Branson is still the most ubiquitous entrepreneur in Britain; one of the very few, says the Evening Standard, "whose surname we can use without introduction".
Even critics pay tribute to his "extraordinary vitality": whether transforming industries (music retail); busting monopolies (British Airways); or championing new sectors (space travel). Yet "Old Beardy" also stirs up an antagonism that mystifies outsiders. The New Yorker puts it down to "tall-poppy syndrome", claiming his PR stunts are viewed as "common".
But although his bumptiousness is grating, what really offends his detractors is his perceived slipperiness. Branson has carefully created an image as an "anti-establishment hero... a David-challenging Goliath" to buy cheap "and extract huge profits", says his biographer Tom Bower in The Daily Telegraph.
But while he is a master at using other people's money to leverage his brand, he's left a trail of failed companies in his wake. Look at it like that and it may seem as though his complex financial empire, kept offshore to disguise the hits taken after so many "monumental flops," says Bower, is built on sand. But if is, says The Times, it is pretty firm sand: there may have been flops (Virgin Cola, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Cosmetics) but Branson is worth £3.1bn not a sum that can be easily dismissed.
When Branson left Stowe in the late 1960s, having already started his first business a student magazine his headmaster told him he'd either go to prison or get very rich. His big break, after founding Virgin Records in 1970, was signing Mike Oldfield, whose theme to The Exorcist sold five million copies an early lesson in the value of publicity, further honed when he signed the Sex Pistols.
But his biggest step up, and the template for his later tilts at markets controlled by giants, was the launch of Virgin Atlantic in 1984, inspired in part because Branson "was pissed off" that a flight to Puerto Rico had been cancelled, says The New Yorker. He ended up selling Virgin Records in 1992 to fund Virgin Atlantic's battle with BA.
It was Freddie Laker who first advised Branson "to get out and use myself" to publicise Virgin, he told The Independent. But that he has done so doesn't mean he actually likes it. "Every time I am asked... to make a spectacle of myself, there is something in the pit of my stomach that turns," he says.
Even so, "this peculiar blend of the introvert and the extrovert, of brash entrepreneur and diffident family man, always comes back for more". It is Bower who supplies the most striking image of Branson as a child climbing trees, egged on by his mother. "Higher," she shouted, urging him beyond the safe branches. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," remains his credo.
The grinning knight's stakes are high in his bid for Northern Rock
Branson has always enjoyed a "love-hate affair with the City", says the Evening Standard, "It is sceptical of him; he can't stand its interfering." But he is upping the ante. Last year, he tried to take over BSkyB after agreeing a brand-for-equity swap with NTL to form Virgin Media.
Now, with Northern Rock, he is taking "his most audacious gamble yet", says James Harding in The Times. He has been trying to shake up British banking ever since he launched his consumer finance operation Virgin Direct in 1995, but this is a different league of business: his plan is to launch a rebranded Rock to challenge the big high-street banks.
It is perhaps typical of Branson that when his Virgin consortium was named as the "preferred bidder" he was already talking in terms of a done deal. It has proved anything but: earlier this week it emerged that a final decision is unlikely until after Christmas. Branson's main challenger (apart from the acting Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, who is calling for nationalisation) is former Abbey chief Luqman Arnold's Olivant consortium.
But the problem both face, says Katherine Griffiths in The Daily Telegraph, is "persistent rumours about financing" (or the lack of it). Both consortia still need to find banks willing to commit to the full multi-billion pound refinancing.
Can "the grinning knight" pull it off? Few would bet against him, even at this stage. However, the stakes are high. Branson insists he has the "knowledge, expertise and the financial clout to make a once-great British institution great again". But if he gets it wrong he'll be putting the good name of his Virgin empire in jeopardy.
In the doghouse: hundreds of investment funds are underperforming - is it time to sell?
News The latest Spot The Dog research from Bestinvest reveals 151 funds are failing to beat their benchmark. We reveal the worst performers
By Marc Shoffman Published
Nationwide: House prices creep up for the first time in over a year
Nationwide’s latest house price index reveals property prices are finally rising. Will this pattern continue in 2024?
By Vaishali Varu Published