THE MUCH-HYPED Virgin empire is barely profitable, according to an analysis recently published recently by The Economist. An investigation by this highly respected journal into The Grin's multifarious business interests reveals that the group is shored-up by its travel activities, primarily Virgin Atlantic Airways, which made pre-tax profits of £67.5m. Virgin Retail, on the other hand, lost £27.8m whilst another mishmash of companies in which Virgin holds stakes of 50% or under lost £37.5m. The biggest lossmaker in the latter group is Virgin Direct, which recorded a deficit of almost £20 million. Branson's share of these losses totals £15.4m.

Richard Branson interrupted his skiing holiday the day following publication of The Economist's report to deny he was facing financial difficulties and would have to sell Virgin Atlantic Airways. Insisted Branson: 'Our finances have never been as strong as they are today.'