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Book News

Strength of 'Virginity' is Branson's modesty, honesty

'Losing My Virginity'
by Richard Branson

Times Books, $27.50

Review by Tom Faucett

(CNN) -- No, it's not a coming of age story, as the title would lead you to believe. Or is it?

Actually, it is, just not in the traditional sense of boy meets girl. Which is exactly how British mogul Richard Branson lives his life and runs his various Virgin companies: in a non-traditional way. Best known for starting Virgin Music, and for his recent failed attempts to circle the globe in a hot air balloon, Branson offers a fascinating autobiography of a man who succeeded by taking huge risks, proving that the established way is not the only way.

Branson, a poor student and injured athlete, made his mark in high school by starting an alternative school newspaper called "Student" with his friend Jonny Gems. While Jonny headed up the editorial side of the paper, Branson showed an affinity for the business end. He hustled to enlist local businesses to buy ad space, which offset the cost of producing the paper. Soon, the newspaper consumed all of Branson's time and energy, so he decided to drop out of school to focus primarily on the paper. Upon Branson's exit, the school headmaster commented, "Branson, you'll either wind up as a convict or a millionaire."

While working on "Student", Branson began the Student Advisory Centre to help young people with problems that plagued them, such as teen pregnancy, suicide prevention, etc. This was the start of a lifetime of charitable endeavors that were as controversial and non-traditional as his business ventures.

Branson used the paper's growing circulation as a platform to launch a discount mail-order music company. The venture quickly took off, but a postal strike illustrated to Branson how dependent he was on the post office to deliver the orders. That prompted him to open a retail music store at a time when music stores in the United Kingdom were very cold and impersonal. Branson thought that if he offered a store with an inviting atmosphere, comfortable chairs and sofas to lounge in, and listening stations, then young people would congregate and talk about music. And they would buy more records.

As the retail store began to monopolize his time, "Student" ran its last edition. As the business enjoyed continued prosperity -- leading to a chain of stores across the country -- Branson bought a recording studio outside of London and began renting it out to musicians and bands to record their music.

Branson eventually started his own record label, Virgin Music,k and the labels first artist was Mike Olfield and his album "Tubular Bells". Oldfield became one of the best-selling artists of the mid-70s. Branson put his cousin Simon in charge of finding new talent. While the music groups Human League, Simple Minds, and others proved to be successful discoveries, the signing of Boy George and Culture Club gave Virgin its first breakthrough hit.

Branson pursued his hobbies with the same enthusiasm and passion as his business ventures. He and a friend broke the record for crossing the Atlantic in a speed boat, which led to his teaming with Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrom to attempt crossing the Atlantic in a hot air balloon. Their first attempt ended in the Irish Sea. Undeterred, they set their sights higher: ballooning around the world. On their first attempt, they began in Japan and wound up crashing in the Canadian wilderness in the middle of a blizzard.

Perhaps Branson's biggest gamble was Virgin Atlantic Airways. He daringly took on the long-established British Airways, accusing them of a monopoly and of unfair business practices. Branson eventually won a sizable out-of-court settlement from British Airways.

The strength of "Losing my Virginity" is Branson's modesty and honesty. He speaks frankly about his first failed marriage, and the happiness he has enjoyed with his second wife and children. Often criticized by the media for being a showman, Branson reasons that he only used his personality to help gain exposure for Virgin. Surprisingly, Branson comes off as a lovable underdog battling the establishment, instead of a spoiled tycoon. In the introduction, Branson explains that "Losing My Virginity" is Volume One of his autobiography, which takes him up to his early 40s. How Branson will reinvent middle-age and retirement should make for a compelling sequel.

This book was published by Time Warner, which is the parent company of CNN Interactive.

Tom Faucett is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.

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