Virgin King: Britain’s biggest entrepreneur looks to the East

SIR Richard Branson’s world famous virgin has just opened its first regional ‘megastore’ in Beirut. The move could be just the beginning of a major regional investment programme by britain’s most famous entrepreneur.
Virgin King: Britain’s biggest entrepreneur looks to the East
By Massoud Derhally
Mon 06 Aug 2001 04:00 AM

Virgin Megastore arrives in the Beirut|~||~||~|Where do you go when you want to get the latest Claude Challe compilation, Hotel Costes, U2, Eric Clapton, Sting, or Pavarotti CD? Better yet, where do you go to buy the latest movie on DVD? A few stores here and there may attempt to satisfy the urge to go out and spend hard earned cash, but the variety and selection, as many of us have discovered, is limited. Moreover, as many of you who live in this region have discovered, ordering over the Internet may not necessarily be the answer either, given the length of time it takes to deliver a package from the US or the UK. But, the situation could soon be changing in Dubai just as it already has in Beirut this month.Virgin Group, a conglomerate of 200 companies, an estimated $5 billion in yearly revenues and led by Sir Richard Branson, its charismatic chairman and president, touched down on July 3 in Beirut, Lebanon. In all the hustle and bustle of the occasion, billionaire Branson managed to inaugurate a 30,000 square-foot, $10 million Virgin Megastore, erected on what used to mark the old Opera cinema. To find out what prompted Virgin to open in Beirut and soon Dubai, Arabian turned to Britain’s greatest living entrepreneur — Sir Richard Branson. “Beirut is rapidly recovering from the Civil War and its consequences, and we believe that the time is now right to expand in the region,” said Branson. “We were approached by Jihad Murr and his partners with a great plan and a great site for the store in the symbolic heart of Beirut. Who could have resisted such a jewel by the Mediterranean.” The new store should prove to be successful, given the consumer behaviour and trend setting culture that the Lebanese are known for.But Lebanon is not the only playing ground the Virgin vessel will visit. Next on the list — Dubai. “Plans for a large operation in the Middle East are at an early stage and would be concentrated on retail and leisure activities. I think the Middle Eastern economies have great development potential. We have also been approached about a store in Dubai and are looking to open one by the end of the year, but that’s another story,” said Branson. Currently, construction is underway at the renowned City Centre shopping mall, home to some 250 stores. “We will be opening shops in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. The first shop to open will be in City Centre and will include a cafe, hi-fi and mobile phone areas,” said Camille Samaha, general manager of the soon to open Dubai Virgin Megastore. The 15,747 square foot Virgin Megastore, which will include a 2,500 square foot Virgin Café, is set to open on 12 September 2001.Recent and future developments then should come as a natural evolution of a widely successful enterprise, which was built on the back of the Virgin mail order record company started by Branson and followed by a music shop in London’s main shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street. Subsequently, a studio was built in Oxfordshire in 1972, where Mike Oldfield recorded his album Tubular Bells, released in 1973 by Branson’s Virgin Records.The record sold 5 million copies and was the catalyst for Virgin Records, which went on to sign such household names as The Rolling Stones, Culture Club, Janet Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds and The Human League. Eventually, Virgin became one of the six biggest record companies in the world and by the early 1980s Virgin Group was going great guns.So how do the recent events fit within Virgin Group’s strategy? “Virgin is not a normal company, it is a branded venture capital organisation and is now looking to expand our brand around the world with partners, especially in the areas of travel, mobile telephony, retailing, leisure and financial services. The developments in Beirut and Dubai fit in perfectly with this strategy,” explains Branson. So is that all? Certainly not, Sir Richard also has his eyes on the sky — on making Virgin Atlantic the 97th airline to service Dubai’s International Airport. Since that day on June 22 in 1984 when Branson had friends, celebs and the media bound on a flight to Newark, Virgin Atlantic has never been the same, and he has never looked back. The airline carrier today is the second largest British long haul international airline, operating services out of London’s Heathrow and Gatwick. “We are hoping to fly Virgin Atlantic services into Dubai in the not too distant future. As for Beirut, we believe that the market does have the potential to develop with another high quality carrier such as Virgin. At this stage we have not formulated any philosophy as to how we would do that. We may work with local partners or simply operate a Virgin Atlantic service, but have not made any commitments at this stage,” says Branson.||**||

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