British entrepreneur ready for daring trip

Because he's adventurous, and he doesn't mind the publicity for his airline, British entrepreneur Richard Branson will attempt to fly a hot-air balloon across the Atlantic Ocean this month. Mr. Branson is the director and founder of the Virgin Group PLC, a record and entertainment company, and he is the owner of the Voyager Group Ltd., which includes Virgin Atlantic Airways. In a similar adventure last year, Branson skippered a powerboat to set the record for the world's fastest transatlantic sea crossing.

Like so much Branson does, this ballooning attempt seems larger than life. He will be traveling at 30,000 feet in a pressurized space capsule with the balloon's engineer, Per Lindstrand. The three-day flight is scheduled for June 15 or 16, and will begin from Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine. In white letters, the words ``Fly Virgin'' are emblazoned on the red balloon, which is 195 feet high and 170 feet across, large enough to engulf a jumbo jet and strong enough to lift a London bus.

A helium balloon made the crossing in 1978, but all attempts with hot-air balloons have failed. Branson says he knows the odds are against them.

``We'll make a determined try and if we fail, and we still think it's possible, obviously we'll go again,'' says Branson. ``We'll keep going till we crack it.''

This same determination has made the businessman into one of his country's great success stories. Outside of royalty, he is probably one of the five wealthiest people in England, and he is running one of its five largest companies. Branson estimates his own worth at approximately a quarter of a billion pounds, or $375 million.

``Five years ago, we were turning over 20 million a year. Today, we're turning over 400 million,'' says Branson. ``We've doubled every year. When I talk about taking Virgin from 400 million to 1 billion in the next three or four years, it's a target we've set for ourselves that is, we believe, quite reachable.''

Virgin and Voyager are made up of 100 small companies, with almost 2,000 employees in 17 countries. Virgin's three main operating divisions are music, retail, and print. Music is its largest division, including a roster of some of England's top rock performers and Virgin Records. About 100 record stores are part of its retail companies. Film and video distribution, computer software, and books are part of Virgin Vision. In November 1986, Virgin was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Branson is planning to list the company on the American Stock Exchange in July.

Branson is ``a genuine entrepreneur with genuine flair,'' says Peter Hillier, a London stockbroker with Barclays DeZoete Wedd who studies the Virgin Group. Mr. Hillier also describes Branson as ``shrewd, pragmatic, unpretentious, and unconventional.''

These characteristics were apparent from the beginning of Branson's career. At age 16, he dropped out of the exclusive Stowe public school to start a magazine. When he was 19, he started Virgin as a mail-order business for selling records. He chose the name Virgin that year because of his business inexperience.

The next year, the first Virgin record store opened. Branson was a millionaire by the time he was 20 in a country where ``being successful was something you wouldn't talk too loudly about,'' he says. ``Hopefully, I can help in making entrepreneurism an acceptable word'' in Britain.

Although he is a risk-taker, Branson relies on his four executive directors, as well as formulas for success. Branson says, ``Our strength has come considerably from promoting from within.'' Employees remain highly motivated because they're given stock in the company. Plus, they have the added security of knowing a large company is backing its members. ``Small is beautiful,'' he says, ``but it's nice to have a powerful umbrella to help out when things aren't going so well.''

If Branson is correct, Virgin territory will extend far beyond its current boundaries. ``We hope to be the greatest entertainment group in the world,'' he says, ``and so far, it's going in the right direction.''

Branson is keeping his eyes to the sky for expansion in both his public and private companies. Virgin Vision will be a shareholder in four new television channels that will be transmitted from a high-power satellite directly to dishes around Britain. Currently, there are only four nationwide TV stations and one cable channel. Operation of the new channels may begin in 18 months.

Virgin Atlantic Airways, which has carried 750,000 passengers since 1984, is expanding its service, too. Beginning this month, it will fly from Luton, in south-central England, to Dublin, in addition to its flights from London to Newark, Miami, and Holland.

Amid fame and admiration, Branson remains almost obsessively private. He began giving interviews only three years ago when he started the airline, because ``it made good business sense.'' He spends weekends in the Oxford countryside with his family. Since January, he has trained three hours a day for the balloon flight. It's not surprising that Branson's heroes as a youngster were explorers and Sir Freddie Laker, who pioneered low-cost transatlantic air travel.

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