There are very few businessmen who have the charm, status and charisma of a celebrity, but Sir Richard Branson is definitely one of the few. Yet Branson is not just a businessman, he’s an entrepreneur with endless vision, fearless determination and the courage to take on even the most challenging of projects. His maverick business style and adventurous hobbies have made him an international superstar with admirers the world over… and he’s not even done yet! Enigma’s Yasmine Shihata caught up with the ‘Rebel Billionaire’ to uncover the secret to his wildly successful career…
The head of the Virgin Empire (the Virgin Record Label, Virgin Airlines, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Mobile, to name just a few) Richard Branson was knighted in 1999 for ‘services to entrepreneurship’ and in 2007 received the title ‘Citizen of the World’ from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for his contributions to humanitarian causes. Branson is famous for setting high goals and then surpassing them, but achieving the highest accolades in the spheres of both capitalism and altruism is no mean feat – especially when you single- handedly build your career from scratch.
Branson didn’t get off to a promising start. Severely dyslexic, he performed poorly in school and dropped out at 15. As he explains, “I decided at a young age that I needed to carve my own way in life. I was strongly anti-Vietnam War and very keen on the idea of students being able to have a voice, to change the archaic way we were taught to do things. So I left school to start a magazine to try to change the world and put things right.”
The moment Branson began to forge his own path, he became unstoppable. At 16 he founded the magazine Student, which attracted contributions from the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin, rising to national prominence within a few years. His first formal business enterprise involved peddling records from the boot of his car – named ‘Virgin’ records as they hadn’t been previously handled in a store. He achieved some success, but in his third year as a businessman he was arrested for illicitly selling exports. Thus by age 21 he was back to square one and his mother had to re-mortgage the family home in order to pay the settlement fee.
After his mother’s bailout, young Branson acquired a shop on Oxford Street in London and Virgin became a record label, signing such controversial bands as The Sex Pistols. The band’s huge success catapulted the Virgin record label to fame. It later signed The Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel and Janet Jackson. Yet in 1992 Branson was forced to sell his music company in order to finance Virgin Airways, his eight year-old airline. Virgin Airways survived, growing until it threatened British Airways, who responded with tactics eventually deemed ‘unduly aggressive’ and for which it had to pay Virgin Airways a fine of nearly $1 million (Branson divided the spoils among his staff). Branson only gained confidence and status with his willingness to take on the establishment, and recent years have seen a stream of new Virgin ventures that continue to push the envelope of convention. After Virgin Trains launched in 1992 and Virgin Mobile in 1999, Virgin Galactic emerged in 2004, while 2006 saw the birth of Virgin Comics and Virgin Fuels.
His network of entrepreneurial activities may bewilder investors, but he maintains control by keeping companies at a manageable size and delegating responsibilities. Branson doesn’t see himself as a CEO and instead finds “good CEOs to run each of the individual companies,” then takes a chairman role for himself. He is known for financing promising concepts and allowing the creator to steer the project, backed by the power of the Virgin brand. Once a young upstart himself, Branson particularly values the work of young people, preferring youthful energy over experience. His staff therefore enjoy personable working environments that inspire fierce loyalty to the Virgin name. The same can be said for his customers and indeed much of the world, proving just how much Branson has accomplished.
But what is a knight without a quest? Well in Sir Branson’s case, there are several holy grails worth chasing. One is a solution to global warming. Virgin Fuels is in the process of developing a literally ‘virgin fuel’ – a non-ethanol-based fuel at a market-competitive price that releases little to no CO2. However, to give his scientists the edge that only comes from competition, Branson also created the ‘World Earth Challenge’ which will award $25 million for a viable plan for a fuel and distribution system to replace petroleum. Branson based the Challenge on the historical precedent of great achievements accomplished in pursuit of monetary prizes, such as the Orzeig Prize that inspired Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.
Yet history will probably remember Branson most for his daring Virgin Galactic enterprise, offering normal (albeit wealthy) passengers the chance to fly into space. Once the first flights lift-off in late 2009, this exciting venture will change the face of luxury adventure travel forever. From next year onwards, Virgin will offer the most unique travel concept in the world. And naturally, Branson will be the first businessman to go where no other businessman has dared to go before…
Yet in addition to being groundbreaking and exciting, all of Branson’s projects have a globally-conscious outlook. And the Virgin Health Bank, launched in 2007, is probably one of his most altruistic ventures. The new Health Bank allows parents to save their baby’s umbilical cord in case the child should have a medical condition that requires stem cell therapy. The Health Bank also provides a valuable resource for medical research, which Branson recently announced will be based in Qatar’s newly-launched Science and Technology Park, thus providing the latest technology in stem cell research for Qatar and the Middle East. And given that stem cell research can lead to cures for life-threatening diseases such as leukemia, its impact will be tremendous. Moreover Branson has created this venture as a nonprofit organisation where all proceeds will be reinvested for future research.
Giving back comes naturally to Branson. As he explains, “Society is rife with extreme wealth, created by capitalism. So if you’re one of the lucky people in a position of extreme wealth, you’ve got to make sure that wealth goes back to society in some form. Whether it’s creating more jobs, or tackling the problems of the world.” While Branson the businessman may be tirelessly plotting his latest venture, his philanthropic side remains optimistic about the world’s future. “We can overcome malaria in Africa. We can make sure that everybody who is HIV positive gets antiretroviral drugs and lives a normal life. We can whip tuberculosis. We can make sure that most conflicts do not develop into full-blown wars.”
With his passion for businesses and adventure and his boundless optimism, it seems Branson will be forever young and forever rebellious. He admits he relates to the line from The Sex Pistols’ hit that ‘old hippies never die’. As he says, “I’m an old hippie, and hopefully I’ll never die either!”
Read on for Enigma’s exclusive interview…
What are your plans for the future of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic?
On the airline front we now have five airlines: the Virgin Blue airline in Australia, Virgin America in the US, Virgin Atlantic is our global airline, Virgin Nigeria in Nigeria, and a trans-Pacific airline, V Australia. We just try to make sure that in any given base the Virgin name is the best quality. Obviously in this particular year – which is going to be tough all over the world – we will only be doing some modest expansion, particularly in America. But hopefully next year we will start to come out of this reccesion and we can then start expanding again.
Virgin Galactic’s first test flight to space will be in December 2009. Throughout the next 18 months we will be doing numerous test flights, some into space, and in 2011 we will start taking people into space. I’m going on the initial flight with my parents and my children. My dad will be 92 by then and he is very much looking forward to it, as is my mother who will be 90!
We are looking for somewhere in the Middle East to put a spaceport and we are talking to five different governments about this. We already have a spaceport in America, but we’d like to have one spaceport in this region and another one in the Far East. It will be an exciting spectacle for people to watch.
Have you had any requests from people in the Middle East wanting to get on the first flights?
We have quite a few bookings from the Middle East. And at the moment they will need to fly out from America, but obviously if we could get a spaceport built in the Middle East, they can fly from there. There are a lot of people from the Arab world who would love to experience space travel, along with millions of people around the world. And in time I hope we can get the price down to about $40,000 per person. The initial price is $200,000 and we have around 300 people who have signed up so far. Once we actually start flying to space, I’m sure more people will step forwards.
You already have Virgin Megastores in the Gulf and Egypt and Virgin Airlines flies to Dubai; will you continue to develop the brand in the Middle East?
Yes, I think radio is obviously one area which can be developed in the region, as well as Virgin Mobile Phones and our Virgin Health Clubs. We already have very beautiful and active health clubs in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Australia, England and South Africa, and we make sure that they are the best in each city. So look out for these Virgin Health Clubs to be coming soon to the Middle East…
We also want to develop more megastores in the region, as our existing ones are surprisingly doing very well. Around the world music stores seems to be dying yet in the Middle East they are still doing extremely well!
You are the ultimate entrepreneur, as no field seems to be off limits for you. How do you come up with ideas for your ventures?
At Virgin we don’t do anything unless we feel there’s a big gap in the market. There is no point in us going into the gas business in Qatar for example, because it is very well catered for by other companies. But if we see that airlines in America are being dreadfully run by other people, then we will setup an airline. Or if we see that Egypt doesn’t have a good music store, then we will set up a music store. Or if we see that Britain doesn’t have good health clubs, then we will set up good health clubs. So basically we will move into areas where we feel that we can make a real difference. We’ll only set up a new company if we feel it will enhance the Virgin brand, and quite a lot of the things we do now are more charitable. The Virgin Health Bank we just launched in Qatar won’t make any profits for the company. Money will instead be reinvested for medical research. We feel this is important, and we will use our skills to make it work. And then again we only set up a new company if we find good people to run it, people who are committed, who believe in it. Only if we feel it is going to be of great value for the money and of good quality. Every choice is made in the interest of enhancing the brand. And preferably, we choose projects where we can have a bit of fun doing them!
Talking about fun, how much do your personal passions affect your choices for business ventures?
Well I might as well enjoy my businesses, so my passions do have a role to play. The next few years should be particularly exciting as Virgin Galactic starts its regular flights.
Lets talk a bit about luxury travel in the recession; have your airlines been hit hard? And do you think the industry can survive the credit crunch?
Well some in the industry will survive and some will die. That is what happens in recessions. The survivors will be that much stronger as a result. We have already seen quite a lot of airlines that we competed with disappear and quite a lot of holiday companies that we competed with have disappeared as well.
Any big examples that we would know of?
All the airlines that flew across that Atlantic that were business-only airlines, like EOS, have disappeared. Fortunately Virgin Airways is strong, we have a strong brand and all our roots are profitable. We are here to stay. We survived the downturn after September 11th  and we have been through the 1982 and 1987 recessions. So we are quite experienced on how to deal with these things. And we’re also diversified; we haven’t got all our eggs in one basket, which helps us survive and succeed. For example, Virgin Health Clubs have had 20 percent more members this year than last year, even through this recession!
So will the luxury travel industry still be booming?
I don’t think it is booming but it is definitely going to be here. I think the horrors of the last eight years, with the Bush administration doing terrible things around the world, is over, thank God. And now we have new hope with Obama. Hopefully his administration will bring more peace to the world. I am involved in an organisation called The Elders, which includes 12 leaders and human rights advocates like Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu. They are trying to resolve conflicts and hopefully we can contribute to a world with far less conflicts than the past.
Speaking of The Elders, are they going to be tackling anything related to the Middle East and the Palestinian conflict?
They have had several discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Carter is known to be an expert in the region who tells the truth. He views the Israeli occupation as apartheid, which it is. I think his bravery will help The Elders bring about peace because the Palestinians are happy to talk to him, everybody in the Arab region is happy to talk to him and the Israelis can talk to the Americans. So I think The Elders can help bridge the gap and they will do their best to try and do so. They had a lot of success in Kenya last year and have helped with the situation in Zimbabwe.
Do governments accept the involvement of the group or do they consider it an interference?
Most governments welcome the opinions of The Elders. The United Nations can only do so much, so a small group like this can be very effective, especially since Kofi Annan can pick up the phone to anybody and get through. Nelson Mandela can do the same. So collectively they are an incredibly powerful group of people. It would be difficult to say no if they wanted to come help resolve a situation. Most leaders look up to these Elders the same way people in an African village look up to their elders.
Are non-business-related, more charitable ventures the direction where you see the next phase of your career going?
Yes, we’ve also got a couple of other social ventures going, such as a centre for disease control we’re building in Africa. The ‘carbon war room’ project is where we are looking for the best ways to tackle carbon emissions and solve the climate crisis. So quite a lot of time and resources are going into those areas now.
On a lighter note, what are your favourite travel destinations?
Well I love all the countries in Africa. There is a wonderful variety. I love the game of Southern Africa and Central Africa in particular. We have a beautiful game reserve in South Africa called Ula Saba which is one of my favourite places to go. And I love Bali, although I haven’t been there for a number of years, so hopefully it hasn’t been spoiled. It used to be lovely, and we stole lots of ideas from Bali to create Necker Island in the Caribbean, where I live. We also have a beautiful Kasbah in the Moroccan Atlas mountains, which I love as well.
Are there any destinations you feel will be the ‘next big thing’?
I think South America generally is still not as explored as it could be. I haven’t explored it myself yet, so I am looking forward to getting into that one day. And if we can get peace to the Middle East, this could be another hot spot. We used to have a ballooning company on the Nile in the Valley of the Kings that would take people on balloon trips across the Valley of the Kings and across the Nile. I can’t remember now why we stopped, but it was a really beautiful experience!