On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A night out with Branson

IT’S 8.30pm on a Friday night, some time before the party crowd in Jalan Telawi packs into the many fancy restaurants and pubs in Bangsar.  

At the newly opened Rick’s Cafe Casablanca at One Bangsar, Sir Richard Branson walked in with a few AirAsia staff.  

In his blue jeans and cotton long-sleeved shirt, the British billionaire walked towards a handful of guests for the private party.  

“Hi, I am Richard, nice to meet you guys,” said the grinning icon, who owns over 300 companies under the Virgin label, including Virgin Airlines and Virgin Megastores, as he extended his hand.  

Clearly relaxed and comfortable, one of the richest men in the world had just generated a storm at a ceremony to announce Virgin Group’s decision to take a 20% stake in AirAsia’s long-haul carrier, AirAsia X.  

He had attended the function wearing a traditional Malay outfit and headgear – no surprise to those who know Branson and AirAsia chief executive officer Datuk Tony Fernandes.  

Both businessmen love to execute public relations exercises and, in the case of Branson, pulling unnerving, even ludicrous stunts.  

The bearded blond-haired Briton had wanted to land for the ceremony in Putrajaya in a hot air balloon but Fernandes talked him out of it as the administrative capital was just too near the KL International Airport.  

Branson has been involved in a number of world record attempts since 1985 on his hot air balloon, including crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the fastest recorded time.  

Between 1995 and 1998, he and Steve Fossett made a number of attempts to circumnavigate the globe.  

In 2004, he decided to travel across the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle and, again, he smashed all records.  

“I was told to be practical this time,” he laughed, finally settling for the Malay warrior headgear, which of course was another record.  

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, too, could not resist laughing at Branson’s publicity stunt when the two met at the Deputy Prime Minister’s residence.  

Najib, who was also wearing his baju Melayu for his Friday prayers, took a look at Branson and said: “At least there is something we have in common.”  

Although this is not Branson’s first trip to Malaysia, he has been soaking in the hospitality. At the ceremony, he took Freddie Laker Jr aside, and pointed out to him the reporters representing the Malay, Chinese, Indian and English media.  

“That’s Malaysia for you. They are Malaysians and they come from different races, and they all speak English,” he said.  

Freddie Laker Jr was invited to Kuala Lumpur for the event by Fernandes. The late senior Laker was the role model of Branson and Fernandes.  

The man started Laker Airways, the first budget airline, in 1966. It went bust in 1982, buckling under intense competitive pressures. It was tagged one of Britain’s greatest corporate failures at that time but many ordinary Britons donated money in an attempt to save that airline.  

But what struck the group of guests was Branson’s approachable and down-to-earth manner. As this writer sought the help of a waitress to take a photograph with him, he insisted that I return the favour by clicking another picture of the waitress and him.  

One prominent chief executive officer was starstruck and could not stop counting his lucky stars as Branson sat next to him. Knowing his easy style, the host had sensibly insisted on no protocol and free seating for dinner.  

As the party began, with Black Eyed Peas’ Mas Que Nada blaring out from the speakers, Branson walked towards the AirAsia crew present, including a few invited from Thailand. Branson must have charmed them.  

His magic was to make his listeners feel comfortable and showing them he was interested in what they were doing.  

To the invited journalists, he insisted on details like the circulation, the readership profile and thrust of their newspapers.  

Branson, after all, started his first business in London publishing a successful magazine called Student.  

On Saturday morning, he flew to New York on a chartered AirAsia flight to make sure he was on time for his daughter’s birthday party.  

Both Branson and Fernandes have shown that CEOs can be hip and cool; that’s surely a lesson for our Malaysian businessmen.