Virgin Takes E Wing

Richard Branson is using the Net to bring order to his motley conglomerate

Richard C. N. Branson has made a career of confounding his critics. His Virgin Group Ltd. spans 170 businesses, from airlines and railroads to music stores and condoms. So when the British tycoon moves online, one shouldn't expect just digital music and virtual airline reservations. Try some 5,500 London households paying gas and electric bills online through Virgin's Web site since July. An additional 2,000 Brits tooling around in cars they bought on the Net, thanks to a new Virgin service launched a month earlier. Then there are the nearly 2 million people in the country booking train tickets through Virgin--and 1 million using the Web to tap Virgin's help in managing $4 billion in assets, including insurance, mortgage, and investment funds. And don't forget the $58,000 worth of wine they're buying online from Branson each week.

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