Richard Branson has revealed the scornful letter he received from Donald Trump back when the two tycoons were hosting rival reality TV shows in the early noughties.
The Virgin mogul, who has openly spoken against the president and his policies, tells of their long-running dispute in his new autobiography, Finding My Virginity.
The bitter exchange took place in 2004 after the British businessman launched his ill-fated American reality television series, The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best, around the same time The Apprentice made its debut.
Branson’s show was blindingly similar to Trump’s, following potential entrepreneurs on challenges around the world as they contested to become the next president of Virgin. Branson was on Fox while Trump was a ratings-winner for NBC.
According to Branson, Trump ‘did not take kindly to having a rival, however friendly and well-meaning.’
In fact, The Donald was so unimpressed with the show, he fired off a nasty letter in which he urged Branson to quit his television gig.
Not one to mince words, Trump offered his unwanted advice telling Branson he has ‘no television persona and, as I found out with others a long time ago, if it’s not there there’s not a thing in the world you can do about it.’
The note, dated November 12, 2004, goes on to question Branson’s billionaire status and urges him to abandon his airline business as well.
‘At least your dismal ratings can now allow you to concentrate on your airline which, I am sure, needs every ounce of your energy. It is obviously a terrible business and I can’t imagine, with fuel prices etc., that you can be doing any better in it than anyone else,’ Trump wrote.
‘Like television, you should try to get out the airline business too, as soon as possible! Actually, I wonder out loud how you can be anywhere close to a billionaire and be in that business. Perhaps the title of your show, The Rebel Billionaire, is misleading?
‘In any event, do not use me to promote your rapidly sinking show – you are a big boy, try doing it yourself!
Donald J. Trump.’
Trump’s letter seemed to have been urged by media buzz in which Branson writes he was often ‘inevitably’ asked about how his show differed from Donald’s.
In interviews, he maintained his program was different because of their ‘contrasting personas’ and how his show was ‘more about adventure and entrepreneurship than confrontation and boardroom dealing.’
Trump, however had no qualms about bad-mouthing his rival to the press, according to Branson.
But while Branson says he ‘appreciated shows such as The Apprentice for bringing the idea of entrepreneurship to a wider audience,’ he was not interested in getting involved as he believed it ‘focused on people’s worst, most negative characteristics.’
The Rebel Billionaire however, never made it back on air after its first season.
Five days after receiving the spiteful message, Branson sent off a note of his own.
In a seemingly more cordial letter, Branson points out the differences between the two businessmen and offers his own advice.
‘Thanks for your note. I think if you look carefully through the press cuttings, I have actually avoided “nasty” comments. I have enjoyed the time we have spent together and would not denigrate you personally. Having said that, every interviewer has asked what differentiates us.
‘Since I disagree with some of your 10 rules for success, I’ve cited two of those. Your advice for people not to shake hands – and your advice that you should go all out to get your own back on anyone who crosses you,’ Branson wrote.
He then goes on to mention a conversation he had with Trump a decade earlier, when a bankrupt Donald had asked him for financial help, an incident which Branson later wrote about on his site around the time of the election last year.
‘I believe my thoughts to be honest, fair comment. I told you the same when we had lunch together and you told me that you were going to spend whatever it took to get your own back on those who had not returned your calls and had not helped you when you were near bankruptcy.
‘I believed it was a waste of your talent and energy and is not the best advice to give budding entrepreneurs. I have read what I believe can be misconstrued as ‘nasty’ comments from you about myself in the press over the last couple of weeks and – although tempted – have to date decided not to respond to them and to rise above them.
As the final blow, Branson makes note about his ‘six billion dollar empires in six completely different sectors’ which rightfully qualifies Fox to title his show ‘The Rebel Billionaire,’ he writes.
‘Perhaps you could re-read what I have said to date and decide whether it’s worth us remaining as friends – or alternatively, you adding me to your list of enemies! It’s your call,’ he concluded.
Branson writes that he did not receive a response from Trump for another decade, suggesting he may have been ‘added to the list.’
However, after Trump announced he was running for office, Branson received another note, this time with a friendlier tone.
The then-presidential candidate sent him an excerpt from an Los Angeles Times article about the commercial space industry, in which Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Branson had been profiled.
‘Donald Trump had taken a black Sharpie pen and drawn a big arrow pointing at my photo, before writing the words, “RICHARD – GREAT!”‘ he writes.
This letter was followed by invitations to Trump’s box at Flushing Meadows for the US Open and other events.
Branson claims he would have been open to mending their friendship, but was ‘skeptical on the timing,’ suggesting Trump was out to recruit high-profile people to support his run.