Branson taps kids to lead Virgin

By Adam Sherwin

Thrill-seeking showman bringing son and daughter in to front business empire as he approaches retirement.

The Rothschilds, the Murdochs ... and now the Bransons. Virgin could become the next great business dynasty after Sir Richard asked his well-connected children to help run his £2.5 billion ($4.9 billion) business empire.

At 62, the tie-less tycoon is already considering a succession plan to ensure that his sprawling corporate interests, which encompass banks, planes, trains and space travel, continue to thrive once the master of the publicity stunt decides it is time to withdraw from the limelight.

With the Virgin brand so closely associated with a youthful veneer, Sir Richard has called upon his son Sam, 27, and daughter Holly, 30, to become more visible "front of house" representatives of the company, as its founder approaches retirement.

"I may be pushing my son out more as I get a bit older, and my daughter," Branson told the Financial Times. "Companies benefit from faces [and] I think Virgin would definitely benefit if Holly or Sam were willing to be more of a face of it."

Dynastic successions rarely go to plan as Rupert Murdoch is discovering.

Virgin, which encompasses 400 companies owned by offshore trusts and overseas trading companies, is hardly a conventional business to inherit.

Sir Richard generates tens of millions of pounds each year by licensing the brand name to various ventures but doesn't sit on the board of any of the companies in the Virgin group.

His buccaneering image has often proved the Virgin Group's greatest asset, which makes a successor from within the Branson gene pool such a tantalising prospect for the entrepreneur.

Holly and Sam will be joining dad on Virgin Galactic's debut two-hour voyage into space next year.

But his well-connected offspring may not be ready just yet to take on responsibility of piloting the entire Virgin enterprise.

In June, Sam, who runs his own television production company, proposed to his girlfriend, actress Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe during a two-week trip to visit lemur colonies in Madagascar, before enjoying a summer that culminated in a birthday party on his father's private Necker Island in the Caribbean, attended by Prince Harry.

A chip off the old anti-establishment block, he once smoked weed with his father and is making a documentary about the "war on drugs", a battle that Sir Richard passionately believes has failed.

Holly is already ensconced in the family business and has a desk at Virgin HQ, where the former qualified doctor now works on business development and special charity projects.

After marrying ship broker Freddie Andrews on Necker she visited India to see how money donated by Virgin Atlantic passengers had benefited a village in Rajasthan.

Last month Holly and her friend Princess Beatrice returned from climbing Western Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc, to launch their new charity Big Change Charitable Trust.

Her entrepreneurial instincts are unproven.

In 2010 Holly launched Project, an iPad magazine, which has yet to convert its A-list cover stars into digital sales.

Mark Borkowski, a public relations expert who has created marketing campaigns for Virgin, said the heirs would inherit a very different company.

"Virgin is a venture capital exercise now, most of its assets are not operated by the Branson estate and it has lost everything that once made it great but it still retains this remarkable ethos."

Branson was always the outsider but Sam and Holly, with A-list pals straddling royalty and celebrity, can carve a fresh way forward for Virgin.

Borkowski said: "No one could match Richard's sense of showmanship but the children are different. "They are well-connected in a way that he never was and they can protect the brand but change the style when they take over," he said.

"I don't expect the children to jump out of a plane but they will be able to represent what a company like Virgin needs to be, to advance in the 21st century."

There is little sign that Sir Richard has lost his appetite for new brand extensions. He has announced his arrival into the concert promotion business with Virgin Live.

Branson will co-promote the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary concerts in London and New York. VIP tickets for the highest-grossing band in music will sell for £1000 at the O2 Arena shows.

Virgin Galactic, a bold venture Sir Richard hopes will seize his children's imagination, is signing up celebrities for its first £128,000 flight.

- Independent

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