Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is as well known for the multitude of businesses in his Virgin Group as he is for his penchant for eccentric antics.
As he explains in his new book “The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership,” an essential part of the brand is fun. “Fun is one of the most important — and underrated — ingredients in any successful venture. If you’re not having fun, then it’s probably time to call it quits and try something else,” he writes.
So it makes sense that one of Branson’s favourite days of the year is April Fool’s Day, where he plays a prank on the media or his coworkers. One of his biggest pranks actually backfired spectacularly and landed him in a holding cell for almost 12 hours in his pajamas.
On March 31 sometime back in the ’90s, Branson decided that his early Virgin Records business partner Ken Berry was going to be his April Fool’s target.
Branson invited Berry and his girlfriend to a nice late-night dinner at a rooftop restaurant he owned — for the purpose of distracting him while some “hired hands,” as Branson calls them, broke into Berry’s apartment at midnight and stole his furniture, television, and stereo. When Berry arrived at his emptied apartment, actors posing as policemen would follow him in to interrogate him and dust for fingerprints. After Berry suffered long enough, Branson would pop in to yell “April Fool!” and move everything back in.
But things started to go wrong when Branson returned to his table from a phone call at 12:15 to find that Berry and his girlfriend had left, leaving a note saying, “Thanks for dinner, see you tomorrow. Ken.” Branson writes that he started to panic, since he was supposed to sneak over to Berry’s place to manage the prank.
“Not knowing what to do I headed for home and was greeted by my wife Joan (who wasn’t in on the joke because she would have totally disapproved of it) saying, ‘Richard, something awful has happened. Kenny’s flat’s been broken into and the police are there now. He called to ask if his girlfriend could spend the night with us as she’s too scared to stay in the flat,'” Branson writes.
Branson decided the joke was long past spoiled, and he called Berry to come clean. The thing was, Berry had already filed a police report. He told Branson he’d try to work something out.
Before Branson had a chance to go to bed, two cops showed up at his door and arrested him. He was in his bathrobe and slippers as he protested, “This is all a terrible mistake.”
They took him to the Harrow Road Police Station and tossed him into a holding cell, taking his robe’s sash from him, following protocol for potential suicide threats.
After a half hour of dozing, Branson writes, he was startled by screams coming from the cell next to him. He couldn’t see what was happening, but “it sounded like a beating was underway as I heard, ‘Please don’t hit me again. Honest, guv, I didn’t do nothing!'”
Branson spent the entire night and morning in the cell before two police officers took him upstairs around noon to charge him with “a dozen or more offences including wasting police time,” he says.
Confused, tired, and ashamed, he stepped outside into the daylight and was greeted by his Virgin Records staff, led by Berry and police. “April Fool!” they yelled.
Branson then learned that after he had confessed to Berry on the phone that the burglary was just an elaborate prank, Berry asked the police officers to drop the case.
The annoyed cops wanted to charge Branson with criminal mischief and wasting police time, but Berry claims he was able to strike a deal: They wouldn’t press charges if they could keep Branson in a holding cell until noon, which according to “official” April Fool’s rules, is when you have to announce a prank. The beating in the cell next to Branson was staged for extra flair.
So while this all may seem like “fun” that’s gotten out of hand, Branson insists it’s just a byproduct of the kind of corporate culture that has allowed Virgin employees to feel free to express themselves and give their all to the company.
In the “Virgin Way,” he writes:
At every step along the way, from Student magazine to Virgin Galactic and everything in between, we have certainly enjoyed great times together and laughed a lot — quite often at my expense, as with my night locked up in a London police station cell! Virgin is built on laughter and so again, this [book] is a tribute to that indomitable communal sense of humour that has made forty plus years go by in the blink of an eye.
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