By Claire West

Some are known for the way in which they progressed from humble origins to multi-millionaire status within years, whilst others are known for their high achievements and colourful lifestyles.

Sir Richard Branson has beaten the likes of Lord Alan Sugar and Simon Cowell to top a list of the most influential British business figures, a new survey concludes.

Nearly one fifth of those surveyed voted for Virgin’s iconic bearded billionaire who, according to Forbes, is the 212th richest person in the world with an estimated net worth of approximately £2.97 billion.

Sir Richard beats The Apprentice star Lord Alan Sugar who, in second place, has elevated himself from street trader to consumer electronics supremo and household name. Lord Sugar is today known more for his media work now than the technology career where he made his fortune with Amstrad.

With an endless conveyor belt of TV talent shows, such as X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, Simon Cowell has ranked 3rd and is one of the most identifiable media business figures in the UK. Before shooting to fame, Cowell worked in the music business with the likes of Pete Waterman and artists such as Sinitta and Westlife.

The top 10 most influential British business figures are:

1. Sir Richard Branson
2. Lord Alan Sugar
3. Simon Cowell
4. Sir Terry Leahy
5. Dame Anita Roddick
6. Sir Stuart Rose
7. Sir Philip Green
8. James Dyson
9. Bernie Ecclestone
10. Peter Jones CBE

5,000 freelancers were questioned about top-ranking British business figures drawn from a range of industries including media, technology and retail.

Andy Turner, Co-Founder of - a freelance site which commissioned the research said:

“Brits are clearly inspired by the true vision of these business figures, many of whom started from humble beginnings, and have now become household names like Lord Alan Sugar”.

”Determination and ambition to become your own boss clearly plays a part and it’s encouraging to see that an increasing number of Britons are opting for a freelance lifestyle.”

“In fact, a recent Government communication from David Cameron estimated that there are 1.4 million freelancers in the UK (62% male, 38% female) which reflects a 14% growth in this alternative way of working since 1998. This clearly shows the importance of freelancers in our country and the massive contribution to our economy that freelancers make.”

“More and more British workers are choosing to freelance. They recognise that it strikes the right balance between work and life, and that in their numbers can trigger economic growth for the country”.

Other well known figures in the list include Tesco’s Chief Executive Sir Terry Leahy who ranked as the 4th most influential British business figure of all time. Born on a council estate, the unassuming Liverpudlian masterminded Tesco's transformation into a global retailer, driving its growth to a position where it now takes £1 of every £7 that is spent in the UK.

Dame Anita Roddick ranked 5th and is best known as the founder of The Body Shop retail chain, but she was also commended as a human rights activist and environmental campaigner.

Andy added:

”Britons have a great array of business figures to look up to and the UK is increasingly becoming a nation of entrepreneurs at a younger age. In our recent study, over a third of those questioned who are inspired to freelance were 25 years of age or under when they set out on their own, and overall a third wished they had started freelancing sooner.”

”Brits prefer to work for themselves because of the lifestyle it affords them. Ninety per cent of those questioned in the survey said they preferred working for themselves because they like what comes from being your own boss; namely more freedom and a better quality of life.”

“We are now providing an opportunity through for people to start on the path of a lifestyle change and to help make a difference to the British recovery.”