The British mogul on parting with his beloved Virgin Records to help save Virgin Airlines, and contemplating a merger with another carrier
I had been running Virgin Records since I was a teenager. By 1992 the record company had just signed Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones, which felt like an accomplishment. We had tremendous acts: Genesis, Peter Gabriel, the Culture Club, the Spice Girls, the Sex Pistols, and Lenny Kravitz.
At the time, British Airways had launched what became known as the "dirty tricks" campaign to try to drive our airline out of business. We were small and the lengths they went to in trying to get rid of us were considerable. The only way to get British Airways to call their tanks off of our front garden was to get a billion-dollar check by selling the record company. [British Airways apologized and ultimately paid 500,000 pounds in damages to Branson and another 110,000 pounds to Virgin.]
As it turns out, it was likely the best business decision of my life: We sold the company at the peak of the record business. But after telling the staff that we had sold, I set off running with tears streaming down my face. I passed an Evening Standard sign that said "Branson sells for 560 million pounds" and realized how bizarre it would look to people if they saw me sobbing my head off.
Before I do anything, I first get tons of feedback. But sometimes I still say "screw it" even if everybody thinks I'm mad. My record company executives said I was crazy to go into the airline business. And I can't say all of our directors were thrilled with Virgin moving into space travel, but I'm a bit of a maverick. I listen, but I've got the final say. Then it's up to me to make it work so I don't lose my credibility.
Now the decision is whether the airline can remain independent. We are trying to protect ourselves against the British Airways-American Airlines (AMR) alliance. It is likely we'll have to join an alliance, too, even though it's not something I particularly want to do. I value our independence, and I think the competition authorities have made a mistake in allowing all these airlines to cozy up together. They've reset the rules, but we've got to play by the new rule book.