Led by visionary founder, chairman, and owner Sir Richard Branson, holding company Virgin Group gets around. The group's travel-related operations, led by 51%-owned Virgin Atlantic Airways, are among its largest cash generators. The airline flies to 30 destinations around the world with a fleet of almost 40 aircraft. Virgin Atlantic is complemented by its Australian low-fare cousin, Virgin Blue, which operates a fleet of some 80 aircraft. Virgin Group also operates rail franchises in the UK and sells tour packages. Besides travel and leisure, the group's major operating areas include beverages, financial services, and telecom (Virgin Media). Virgin, with offices in about 30 countries, was established in 1970.
Branson has made Virgin one of the most recognizable brands in the world by plastering it on everything from balloon flights to wine, representing more than 300 branded companies. Rather than maintaining full ownership of the companies, Branson typically has entered new businesses via partnerships with other investors or by licensing the Virgin brand name.
Virgin Group's latest airline venture, V Australia, is the international arm of Virgin Blue, offering flights to New Zealand and throughout the South Pacific islands. V Australia gives Qantas a run for its money on the Australia-US routes. The airline took wing in early 2009 with service from Sydney to Los Angeles, quickly followed by service from Brisbane and Melbourne to the "City of Angels." A year later it added service to South Africa, just in time for FIFA World Cup action.
Virgin Group also runs Virgin America, a luxury low-fare carrier (sweet deals, unexpected amenities) based out of San Francisco. The US airline licenses the Virgin brand and borrows heavily from the Virgin customer-experience playbook. Nonetheless, Virgin Group is limited by US law to a minority stake in the carrier. Its destinations include 10 major US cities, as well as service to Toronto.
The group continues to look for growth opportunities to offset the airline industry's ups and downs. Emerging Virgin projects include stem-cell storage, alternative energy, and other innovations that strike Sir Richard's fancy. Virgin's space tourism division, Virgin Galactic, got off the ground in 2010 when a Scaled Composites test rocket took flight. The spaceline has tied up with Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada to compete for NASA funding for developing private-sector space taxis. In the meantime, it has received deposits from 400 customers (more than $54 million) to soar into space on a ship named Enterprise sometime in 2012.
The company launched into another new sector in 2010 when it formed Virgin Healthcare, fueled by the purchase of a 75% interest in Assura Group's Assura Medicals. The British health care provider manages about 30 general practitioner clinics in the UK. The move followed Virgin's introduction of Virgin Digital Help. In partnership with Sutherland Global Services, the help line caters to consumers with such IT gadget gaffaws as wireless networks or printers not connecting, PCs crashing, and game consoles failing to link up with peripheral equipment.
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