Richard Branson made a fortune selling records. But one of Wall Street’s hottest pandemic plays is driving the billionaire’s wealth now, even as his and many other blank-check firms are slumping.

The Virgin Group founder has been a serial user of US special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, employing them to rapidly turn parts of his business empire into listed entities as well as to acquire stakes in companies such as Anne Wojcicki’s DNA-testing firm 23andMe Holding Co.

A SPAC set up by Virgin Group in 2021 completed its purchase last month of online retailer Grove Collaborative Holdings. While Grove’s performance has mirrored the broader SPAC slump — falling 31% since it began trading in June even after shares rallied last week — Branson has gains of about 50%, highlighting the rewards available to so-called sponsors of blank-check firms.

Branson’s SPAC dealings have remolded, propped up and expanded a business empire that began with a mail-order catalog in 1970 and now has investments in more than three dozen companies worldwide, including his flagship airline, Virgin Atlantic. He has a net worth of $5.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, down about 1% this year. Roughly a quarter of his fortune is held in companies that have listed through SPACs in the past three years.

“For the right company, a SPAC is a good way of raising money and building momentum,” a spokesperson for Virgin said in an emailed statement. “The team is always looking for new opportunities where it can make a difference, and we look forward to continuing to assess the use of SPACs as part of a balanced approach to portfolio investing.’’

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., the space-tourism company Branson founded, helped jump-start the SPAC boom in late 2019 when it merged with a blank-check firm set up by Chamath Palihapitiya.

Branson sold more than $1 billion of shares in the company during the pandemic as he scrambled to shore up Virgin Atlantic, whose revenue fell, like for other airlines, as demand for flights cratered.

I “put my hand very, very deep in my pocket to make sure that it came out the other side,” Branson, 71, said last month in a Bloomberg News interview.

Virgin Galactic surged more than 400% to almost $60 by early 2021 but has since slumped to as low as $5.14 after it delayed the launch of its commercial service. Branson’s remaining stake is worth about $225 million.

Branson, who took a trip into space a year ago, also owns a stake in satellite-launch company Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc., which completed a merger with blank-check firm NextGen Acquisition Corp. II in December. The shares have since tumbled more than 50%, but it remains his biggest listed stake with a value of about $1 billion.

SPACs make it easier to take companies public that have yet to generate significant revenue since they have fewer restrictions on financial projections compared with traditional listing routes. Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit had 2021 revenue of $3.3 million and $7.4 million, respectively.

“These are companies that are going to need a ton of capital to get off the ground,” said Usha Rodrigues, a law professor at the University of Georgia. “The SPAC is for the company that doesn’t have a lot of revenue.”

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