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 about 35 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 runs Virgin Rail and sells tour packages. Besides travel and leisure, the group's major operating areas include financial services and telecom (Virgin Media). Virgin, with offices in some 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 200 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 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 about 10 major US cities.
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, hopes to one day offer holiday packages that include views of earthrise. The space line's first spacecraft -- the six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo -- will undergo continued testing by its builder, Scaled Composites, throughout 2012 with the hope of offering commercial space flight in 2013 or 2014 at $200,000 a ticket.
The company launched into another sector in 2010 when it formed Virgin Care, fueled by the purchase of a 75% interest in Assura Group's Assura Medical. The British health care provider offers more than 80 NHS services 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 struggling with such IT gadget gaffes as wireless networks failing to network, PCs crashing, and game consoles not playing nice with peripheral equipment.