Do Branson's profits equal his joie de vivre?
By Andy Serwer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I MUST SAY THAT I'M A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED IN RICHARD Branson. After all this time as one of the world's highest-profile entrepreneurs, he's only now beginning to deal in the world's two most precious fluids: wine and gasoline. Yup, in case you missed it, his ever-expanding Virgin Group recently entered the grape fermenting business, and now he's musing publicly about getting into oil refining. (Virgin Vines customers must hope the two businesses will in no way be connected.)

I've always found Sir Richard to be a breath of fresh air (or is it nitrous oxide?) compared with most other bigtime CEOs. Why top executives can't seem to whistle a little bit more while they work is beyond me. But I think it's safe to say that no big-league businessman on the planet has a better time of it than he does (naturally Branson rates high on our Envy List in this issue). While I was considering his latest two forays, though, I began to wonder: Just how successful is the guy? And how well have his various ventures actually done?

Good questions and not easy ones to answer, for a couple of reasons. First off, Branson now controls over 200 companies in businesses ranging from the mundane (Virgin Cola) to the exotic (Virginware lingerie) to the otherworldly (Virgin Galactic space travel). Second, Branson's empire is mostly private, and though he and his minions aren't unduly secretive, they disclose only as much as they have to. Fair enough. Certain outposts of his empire are public, or partially owned by public companies. And in Britain, unlike the U.S., his private companies are required to disclose some of their financials. Poring over these numbers--which admittedly tell just a small part of the story--it's not at all clear where Branson is making big bucks. But (a) that doesn't mean he isn't, and (b) I'm sure that's the way Sir Richard likes it.

Let's start with the airlines, which are the biggest pieces of Branson's operation. Virgin Atlantic, his overseas carrier, while not exactly swimming in cash, made a £21 million profit (roughly $41 million U.S.) on turnover (that's sales, Yank) of £1.3 billion for the year ended in February, according to company filings. Scratched out a profit (barely) the previous year too. What U.S. airline wouldn't kill for those numbers? Give him a star there. Other aeronautic pursuits have been less ducky. Virgin Express, a low-cost operator in Europe that reports in euros and dollars, lost $34 million in 2003 and 2004 combined. And then there's Virgin Balloon, which lost some £500,000 in 2003. Its fortunes, however, are on the rise. In 2004 it made a profit of almost £85,000, or $156,000.

His other businesses are a mixed bag. In Britain, the cellphone carrier Virgin Mobile had £521 million in sales and £22 million in profit ($42 million U.S.) for the year ended in March, according to unaudited figures in a Virgin document. (That's nice work.) Virgin Bride, which sells wedding dresses and such, has a nice name but seems to have a bad business model. It has lost about $5 million over the past two years. And Branson's TV show, Rebel Billionaire, has been a flop. (A major loss of face here, getting beat by the Donald.)

Of course, Branson is always looking over the horizon. And right on into space. Virgin Galactic is already accepting reservations for flights that the company says will commence in 2008. A British paper reports that Sigourney Weaver, Victoria Principal, and--fittingly--William Shatner have already booked the $200,000-plus ride. So even if all of Branson's investments don't pay dividends, he still gets two thumbs up for boldly going where no man has gone before.

ANDY SERWER, editor at large of FORTUNE, can be reached at Read him online in Street Life on and watch him on CNN's American Morning and In the Money.