In February 1979, someone asked Richard Branson if he had named his company, Virgin Music, after the famous necklace of islands known as the Virgin Islands. "Never heard of them," Branson replied. "Where are they?"
The next day he contacted a real estate agent who sold islands in the British Virgin chain, and winged off to Tortola, where he hopped about the islands in a helicopter. The last island Branson saw was called Necker—named for the Neckerberry bushes that flourish there, providing sustenance for a herd of belligerent wild goats. "You could see the rays and turtles swimming in the reef, and there were thousands of terns and gulls and hawks," he says. "I fell in love with it."
When the agent told him the asking price was $4.5 million, Branson winced. Asked how much he could afford, Branson offered $250,000. Fortunately for Branson the owner of the island had profound liquidity problems, and a year later the agent called Branson to see if he'd raise his offer to $300,000. As fast as Branson could make out a check, Necker Island was his.
Over the past 20 years he has transformed a mostly barren shank of rock into what he now calls "my private island paradise." And it has cost him only $20 million. The main compound sits atop Devil's Hill; it took more than three years to build the 10-bedroom house that features a huge, high-beamed living room with sweeping ocean views on three sides. Branson then added two guest houses, which were made in sections in Bali and shipped to Necker for final construction. He also had a desalinization plant and a generator installed, and imported a variety of plants and trees to join the native cacti and berry bushes.
Branson spends two monthlong vacations on Necker each year and rents it out the rest of the time. A host of celebrities have stayed there, including Princess Diana, Steven Spielberg, Mel Gibson and Oprah Winfrey. Branson, who has a gift for combining his pleasures with his businesses, charges $20,500 per night for groups of 19 to 24 people, $13,000 a night for one to seven guests. That sounds steep, but there's a long waiting list. Just ask the Clintons, who have been turned down three times.