01 August 1997

THE UBIQUITOUS GRIN is reported to be mulling a move into banking, courtesy of his paymaster Australian Mutual Provident, the Oz life assurance giant behind the Virgin Direct financial services venture. As usual, Branson will be the suit [or cardigan] fronting the venture while the hard cash and expertise come from AMP. The likely vehicle for the foray into banking is the acquisition of a building society - Birmingham Midshires or Nationwide have been named as possible targets - then converting it into a bank with a ready-made network of high street branches - as well as a 24-hour First Direct-style operation. Virgin Direct managing director Rowan Gormley insists: 'Our plans are not yet finalised and there are many routes we could take, many people refused to take us seriously when we launched in 1995, but we have taken massive market share from the established City companies, we now have the backing to shake-up the industry even more.' Nationwide's chief executive Brian Davis is sceptical that his members would vote for conversion just because 'Branson is a nice bloke', and doubts any offer would be good enough. However, he has taken the precaution of writing to his 200,000 members informing them of Virgin's association with AMP and its arriviste interest in Nationwide.