Exclusive Interview: Sir Richard Branson
By Marcy MacDonald
With a phone permanently attached to one ear, the Virgin king, Sir Richard Branson, conducts business waist-high in the swimming pool on one of his own personal Virgin Islands. Even though Virgin America reputedly lost $175 million last year, it's been voted the best new airlines in the country; and according to Wikipedia, Branson is still No. 236 on the Forbes' billionaire list with an estimated net worth of $4.4 billion. Not bad for a kid who quit school at 14.
Q. How, exactly, do you describe your occupation?
A. Well, I'm chairman of the Virgin Group (200-plus companies in over 30 countries with interests in travel, tourism, mobile, broadband, television, radio, music festivals, finance, health, drinks, ecology as well as renewable energy and resource efficiency through the Virgin Green Fund). Oh, and we have a 49 percent ownership of Virgin America -- and a quarter of the votes.
Q. After you were expelled from Stowe School (he was caught in flagrante with the math tutor's daughter), your parents actually gave you a year off...
A. Of course, my parents were worried about it in the beginning, but they were very understanding about what I wanted to do because my father had been pushed into being a lawyer -- which he didn't want to do. So he walked me around the garden and promised me a year to try business, then he'd try to get me back into some school or other if I failed; so I left school and started Student magazine from out of a call box! It turned out to be the best decision I ever made: I found out that a lot of school was a waste of time for me; the magazine was my education.
But for 99 percent of the population, the best thing is to stay in school and get an education. Fortunately, my kids enjoyed school more than I did (daughter, Holly, is now a veterinarian; son Sam is still looking).
Then I started on the record side and it turned out to be more fun. And Virgin Records took over ... In 1970 I founded Virgin as a mail-order record retailer, and shortly afterward I opened a record shop in Oxford Street in London. In 1972 we built a recording studio in Oxfordshire where the first Virgin artist, Mike Oldfield, recorded 'Tubular Bells.' Then, in 1977, we signed the Sex Pistols and we went on to sign many household names from Culture Club to the Rolling Stones, helping to make Virgin Music one of the top six record companies in the world. I was very, very lucky.
Q. Lucky? How has luck loomed so large in your life?
A. Fantastically lucky, apart from the fact that my mother never made puddings -- I had to run away to a friend's house after dinner to get them! My wife (Joan, mother of his two children) says my passions are beautiful women and sticky puddings. Everything else about my childhood was extremely lucky.
Q.You are now in the boutique hotel business, but your first was on Necker Island -- which you allegedly bought to impress your fiancee (now wife), Joan, who shuns the limelight as much as you bask in it ...
A. It was 1978, and in order to impress a beautiful woman, I answered a high flying ad to visit the British Virgin Islands, stay in an upper-class villa and tour the Caribbean by helicopter with a view to buying an island. I just thought it would be a nice joy ride with the woman of my dreams -- and then I saw this perfect place (with an unfortunate name, Devil's Island), covered in Necker berries... it was love at first sight.
Q. Sounds like a dream come true... And your children; what do you dream for them?
A. I want my kids to be whatever they want to be, to go out on their own and prove themselves for their own sake. I think its important for the children to do it on their own. I'll give you an example about my younger sister who set up a little art gallery. She was 18 and would have loved for me to have bought just one painting because it would have helped her. But I made a point of not buying from her. Now, she's older and my little sister made it without my help. She appreciates that. I also had the satisfaction of building Virgin without any help and think it's important for children to prove they can do it on their own.
Q. You're known for being generous to your employees.
A. It's a balancing act. Obviously, if you're got a highly motivated group of people working together, you can achieve pretty well anything -- just as a company can be destroyed if you lose the faith of the people in your company. The key is finding the right people, motivating them so that they're proud of creating a quality product that is better than its rivals. If people believe that what you have -- the airline, for instance -- is the best, they're proud of it and they deliver.
And you look after your staff. You may not be able to pay them as much as the big airlines, but you can make sure that all the little things are right. For example, the air hostesses and air stewards may have given up even better jobs on the ground to work for you, so you put them in good hotels with swimming pools and spas.
Q. Of the 200 winning companies you run, whatever happened to, for instance, Virgin Vodka?
A. We still sell a little, but it's triple distilled in small batches, so there's never enough to go around: it was sadly one of our less successful ventures, I suspect because it's difficult to differentiate vodkas, even though because of the triple distilling, you never, ever get a hangover!
Q.You practically own your own country, what with Necker Island being duplicated on the island next door, Mosquito. Do you still rent it from yourself for family birthdays during the summer?
A. The "island next door" is the most beautiful little island in the world. It's now my home and, yes, we'll share it with people who want to rent it. We're delighted to have them in our exquisite part of the Caribbean. The new island is 100 percent carbon neutral, and we're putting windmills and solar equipment on it. It has a beautiful reef around it, delightful staff, and we're surrounded by beautiful, clean seas... it's pristine.
Q. You've now gone further south -- to Africa.
A. We have a beautiful game park called Ula Saba, quite similar to Necker in that it's high above the jungle -- rather than the sea -- with the best game viewing anywhere in Africa, and sightings of cheetah (the fastest things on feet) and leopards a regular occurrence. We have two houses there, a safari lodge and the rock lodge, high up on the rock.
Q. Tell me about The Elders, the group formed by Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu, from the inspiration of musician Peter Gabriel and... you.
A. They are a group of leaders who contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. Considering how old they are, they're working hard and have considerable success in Kenya where they resolved a nasty conflict there. They've done a lot of work behind the scenes in Zimbabwe and, hopefully, a new coalition government is being formed there. We're also working on Cyprus to get the country unified, and we're obviously working on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Q. You've got a gazillion philanthropic things going on. What about the Virgin Earth Challenge with a $25 million prize -- any awards, yet?
A. We've got some good projects through which we're planning the future, and it would be wonderful if somebody could pull it off today; but we're not sure that just one silver bullet can be delivered -- yet.
Q. Your mother heads an international charity for lost and missing children; your kids are equally involved with their own causes. Do you have a favorite?
A. Recently, I met with three nonprofits in the U.S. that are doing great work. Virgin America supports them with donations: Stand Up For Kids (which helps homeless youth), KIPP (public charter schools that prepare disadvantaged children for college and brighter futures), and Green For All (job training in the green sector for disadvantaged).
Q. So, now that you've finally triumphed over British Airways, is there a negative trend in the travel market you'll have to deal with in future?
A. It's clear that customers are very smart; they know how to shop around and they won't settle for anything less than value for money. That's why Virgin America has been so successful -- it's got competitive fares without sacrificing customer service.
We've noticed that boutique/lifestyle hotels try too hard to be cool while under-serving the customer. We hope to do in the hotels space what Virgin America has done for commercial flying: bring back the value without sacrificing the glamour and the essentials.
We're working so hard on our boutique hotels initiative! It's a tough time for everyone right now, but partners and customers trust our brand and know that we can deliver a brilliant experience. So we're seeing lots of opportunities. And topping my list of gut feelings is this: Business has to give people enriching, rewarding lives, or it's simply not worth it.
Q. What's at the top of your wish list?
A. For clean technology to catch up with market demand – to help us live healthier and work cleaner.