with Richard Branson
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
an age when most people are slowing down, the world's
most extroverted entrepreneur's brand ambitions are
accelerating: Virgin space travel, Virgin alternative
fuel and, in his spare time, Virgin world peace.
happy snaps: Richard, beaming,with Nelson Mandela,
Richard laughing with Pamela Anderson, Richard nursing
a lion cub, Richard in a pilot's suit, Richard with
Lady Diana, Richard giggling at Mickey Mouse, Richard
hanging off a helicopter, Richard dressed as an African
tribesman, Richard with Brad Pitt. But today it is
Richard, with me, at lunch. Richard is looking down
at his plate of raw fish. Only occasionally do his
eyes meet mine. Presumably, when Richard thinks it's
safe. Clearly, Richard is a man of many parts, something
I attempt to explore over the sushi.
the usual way of things for those who find themselves
midway between 50 and 60, Sir Richard Branson's world
is expanding. Having bounded across the globe, leaving
his heavy footprint in businesses as disparate as
aviation and bridal wear, he is about to enter space.
And why not? A short excerpt from Virgin Galactic's
blurb will give you the thrust: "... the countdown
begins. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ... the VSS Enterprise, your
spaceship, is released from the mother ship. Almost
immediately you will hear the roar of the rocket behind
you as the enormous power accelerates you at 4G to
a speed faster than a bullet." The trip is, of
course, some way off but you can reserve a $US200,000
($261,000) seat on a Virgin Galactic spaceship for
a 10% deposit right now. This is Branson's limitless
and borderless commercial cosmos.
asked from where his impulse to do business sprang,
the businessman is not happy with the word - "business",
that is. It is more a keenness to create, not trade,
that attracts him. "I literally just bought one
747 to try to see if we could create an airline that
was very, very different - and people liked it and
it worked. And so if you're creating an airline, you
are painting a picture in a sense. You're trying to
get every little detail right." It's creation,
presents in his trademark casual - bordering on dishevelled
- state, still as careless, if not carefree, as the
rebellious '60s kid he once was. He is nostalgic for
those times when at 16, concluding education was for
squares, he started up a student magazine for rebels.
"Within 18 months I was marching with Vanessa
Redgrave and Tariq Ali against the American embassy
in Grosvenor Square." But not before the creator
had managed to sell enough advertising from the school
phone box to cover the printing and paper costs of
the magazine. How did 16-year-old Richard manage this?
"You name it, I rang everybody - Coca-Cola, and
asked for their marketing department; Pepsi, and said
that Coke looked interested in taking the advertising;
National Westminster Bank, and then Barclays and so
on." The era is evidently Branson's heartland
as he declares that "the people who came out
of the '60s do care about other people more than perhaps
any other generation." Perhaps.
is labouring over a knight-sized platter of sushi
which the kitchen has piled for him, no doubt in recognition
of his tremendous fame. This is something that he
has brought on himself - the fame and, as a consequence,
the platter, which he thoughtfully shares. His parents
did advise him, he says, to keep a low profile. What
a naughty son he has turned out to be. "Let your
businesses do the talking and try to keep out of the
public eye," they warned, according to Branson,
"because you won't be happy if you become a public
" At the same time, whispering siren-like
in Branson's other ear was Freddie Laker of failed
airline fame. Laker advised the Virgin boss to retail
not his product but himself as the company's greatest
asset. Branson took to self-promotion like salmon
to a stream.
Virgin name gradually attached not only to records
and airlines but to cola and credit, cinemas and vodka,
jeans and trains. With each new venture, Branson and
his PR dervishes devised photo opportunities for the
company's leading man. Branson in a wedding dress
to promote his bridal wear line; Branson naked, dangling,
in every sense, from a crane, above New York'sTimes
Square to promote his mobile phones and soon, on a
screen near you, Branson playing himself in Superman
Returns and the forthcoming James Bond movie. How,
I ask, does a man who is so diffident over lunch,
summon the chutzpah for a public romp in the raw?
Branson only says: "You have to take a deep gulp
- and then take a deeper gulp."
Richard, as we all know, specialises in life--threatening
publicity. He says it all goes back to a British tradition
of derring-do. "I think there's something in
British people - we come from generations of explorers."
Being a great-great cousin to Scott of the Antarctic
and a family friend of the heroic World War II pilot
Douglas Bader may provide the guts that follow the
gulp. Branson explains the happy convergence of daredevil
and marketer. "To be in a position to see if
I could be the first to cross the Atlantic in a balloon
or to fly a balloon around the world, or be the fastest
in a boat - it was just wonderfully challenging and
it helped me put the Virgin name on the map."
ask whether, British steel notwithstanding, he has
ever been frightened. "You know, I love life
enormously and I've no wish to depart from it. There
were situations where you know, it really did not
look like I was going to survive them, and in those
situations I just was desperately trying to think
of ways to overcome the problems I put myself into."
When I ask for an example, Branson, the brand, looks
bored at the prospect of recounting episodes from
such a well-known life to yet another questioner.
He answers wearily that I am welcome "to lift
any of them from the book", by which he means
his autobiography (in multiple reprint since 1998)
in the hope that I will forgo Branson the man for
Branson the press release. I suppose this is inevitable
when a life lived is also a life sold.
when pressed, he relents to tell me how in 1987 he
and Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand crashed into
the North Sea, how Lindstrand jumped out of the balloon
and left Branson soaring back up to a great height
and how he thought these were the last minutes of
his life (cf. pp267-280 of the 2005 paperback revised
edition of Losing my Virginity: The Autobiography).
In that moment, did he reproach himself for taking
such a risk? "Every time. Every single time that
I got into a fix, I've told God, if there is a God,
or myself, whatever, that if you get me out of this,
I'm never going to do it again." But he does
keep on doing it.
cites a recent instance, arriving in South Africa
to launch yet another Virgin business. "They
took me straight from the airport to a fighter jet
base and I'm sort of strapped into this fighter jet
and told that I'm going to try to beat the record
from nought to 30,000 feet in under 100 seconds, and
then when we're breaking the speed, [we'll break]
the sound barrier on the way up ... there are moments
that are - oh fuck, not again." Branson's face
cracks with a smile sending myriad little lines darting
to all points.
is more than a touch of sniggering naughtiness in
the 55-year-old entrepreneur. When his fierce commercial
competitor British Airways, with much hoopla, sponsored
the erection of a giant wheel outside the British
House of Commons, Branson was alerted to the fact
that BA was having technical problems on the day of
the wheel's unveiling. With the media gathered to
witness BA's embarrassment, as the giant wheel stubbornly
refused to rise to the occasion, Branson struck. "I
had an airship company and so I scrambled this airship
and we had this massive banner which just went straight
over it, and just said 'BA can't get it up'."
was your idea?
was my idea, yeah," confirms Branson proudly.
"Schoolboyish, but it's fun," he laughs
- unusually, looking me in the eye.
even a very naughty boy is these days allowed to believe
he can save the world. Celebrity philanthropy is cool,
a vogue for which I suppose we should be grateful.
Branson is concerned about AIDS, global warming, malaria
and war. In a slight overreach, he claims to have
almost averted the US-led invasion of Iraq by spiriting
Saddam Hussein out of the country (presumably on a
Virgin airliner). The plan was to persuade the Iraqi
leader to step down and leave, in the manner of the
Ugandan dictator Idi Amin many years earlier. "I
talked to Nelson Mandela and he agreed if I could
get Kofi Annan's blessing to go - and he also wanted
[South African President] Thabo Mbeki's blessing.
And so, finally, I got their blessings, and sent a
plane to pick him up and take him, and then the bombing
started so it never actually went." A Virgin
Peace opportunity routed.
cultivates his lofty connections, mentioning over
lunch a recent house guest, South African Archbishop
Desmond Tutu. The Virgin boss's failed Saddam airlift
galvanised his desire to bring together a group of
super-mediators, who could intervene in the world's
dire problems and seemingly intractable conflicts.
I now find myself in the surreal position of going
through a list of what Branson, in conjunction with
Virgin rock star Peter Gabriel, are calling "Elders".
They want 12 of them. Kofi Annan will evidently be
a goer when he retires from the UN (let's hope he
doesn't have to mediate anything in Rwanda) as would
Nelson Mandela and his wife, as well as Jimmy Carter
and possibly the Dalai Lama - although Branson acknowledges
that this would mean "problems with China".
Oprah Winfrey, whom he was flying to meet later in
the day, in South Africa, would be a "Founder"
of the "Elders", as would Bill Clinton.
Branson happily includes himself in the flying phalanx
of self-appointed celebrity-rock star consciences
- Bono, Geldof et al., who peddle their stardust in
the corridors of power. Switching on to the environment
a couple of years ago, Branson is also working overtime
to develop Virgin alternative fuels.
worthy and the trendy, the profit-seeking and the
philanthropic, the serious and the stupid, the lofty
and the tawdry are all hopelessly jumbled in the Branson
business universe. On an earlier visit to Australia
this year, Branson starred in a "virally"
released ad for Virgin's new home loan business. In
it, Branson is apparently naked, as are the two young
women with him, immersed in a bubbling spa and sipping
champagne. In what looks like a backroom video-nasty
production, the clip ends with a bang - a third naked
nymph, who, we are meant to understand has been servicing
more than a Virgin home loan, emerges from beneath
Branson. Is this the real Virgin? Or is Archbishop
Desmond Tutu Virgin? Richard Branson is certainly
Virgin but his enthusiasm for the role of authentic
chief spruiker, at least in our encounter, appears
to be flagging. Does there come a point when a reluctant
promoter becomes a liability?
has pushed aside his plate and is looking to leave,
prompted by a PR assistant who is looming over our
table. He is talking about Lebanon. "I mean,
really, they'd got themselves back on their feet and
suddenly - I mean a short, sharp, two days [bombing]
by Israel - OK - but then a ceasefire." Then,
deciding the conversation is over, he concludes, uniquely,
with, "but, whatever, thank you". He rises
from the table. There is tension in the air. Branson
is late for another PR appointment.
with Richard Branson
(Credit: ABC Foreign Correspondent)
entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson speaks about bucking
convention - and his imminent venture into Australian
Good evening Sir Richard - thank you for joining Foreign
Thank you. Could you call me Richard please, I'm not...
can't get used to this 'Sir Richard' business.
Well actually I wondered, just on the knighthood,
I mean for someone who's been such a maverick did
you have any ambivalence about accepting a knighthood?
I mean obviously, yeah it is a little strange. It's
a bit like... I hear somebody saying Sir Richard and
I sort of turn around thinking there must be a Shakespearean
play going on in the background or something... and
then suddenly realise I'm on the stage. No, I spent
all my life trying to topple knights and lords and
always find that they're the worst rogues, and therefore
it's slightly strange to suddenly be one oneself.
Richard, why "Virgin Blue"? I mean, isn't
red the Virgin symbol?
Well I was told that in Australia a redhead is known
as a 'bluie' and I just thought it would be great
fun to... and in fact we ran a competition and one
or two people sent this in as ideas... to take the
mickey a little bit and so our red plane's a Virgin
Blue plane - and that's a fact.
Do you know much more than that about Australia? I
mean, have you done a lot of market research - or
is it just like "hey, let's go there!"?
It's more the latter and you know, I've been to Australia
and I've always enjoyed visiting it, and I've got
a really dear godfather who lives down there... I've
got a lot of friends who live down there...
But this is not the same as starting an airline, is
Well, we know that people in Australia love the idea
of both Impulse and Virgin Blue getting up and adding
a bit of competition, and it's fun to be able to deliver
You're not going to stop at an Australian airline
launch, are you? I mean, you've got other plans I
Yes. I mean, I think... we're also launching this
year Virgin Mobiles, which will be a much better value
mobile phone than you can get at the moment on the
Australian market place - and I suspect that when
I come to Australia people will be coming to me with
lots of good ideas and... and I can never resist a
good idea. My biggest weakness in life is I can't
Tell me ... a lot of people have pointed out that
Virgin is such a highly diversified brand now... how
do you keep control of all these arms? This is not
the way - in lots of ways - modern businesses run,
do they... I mean GM sells cars, or Newscorp sells
media and entertainment but you sell pretty much anything.
I think... I'm inquisitive.... and I love a new challenge...
and if I feel that we can do it better than it's been
done by other people, we'll have a go. Some people
call that 'brand stretching' and say that this is
not the way business should be done, and in the Western
world generally it's not the way business is done.
And I think to be perfectly frank the reason it's
not done that way is that most big companies are public...
they have fund managers who only specialise in one
area... and so if you go and stray outside that fund
manager's arena, the company gets criticised. Fortunately
we're not a public company - we're a private group
of companies, and I can do what I want.
Some people as you say, call that 'brand stretching'
- other people I believe, your colleagues among them,
have called it meglomania. Is there anything that
you will stop at?
Well, we wouldn't... we wouldn't launch a cigarette.
I think Virgin Cigarettes is about as far as we wouldn't
go - but I think that most other things we would do.
I mean, I think... when you think what is business?
... Business is giving people in their lifetime what
they need and what they want. And you know, I've had
great fun turning quite a lot of different industries
on their head and making sure those industries will
never be the same again, because Virgin went in and
took them on. Occasionally we'll come unstuck and
you know, we'll learn from our mistakes but so far
I think we've managed to get it right more often than
we've got it wrong.
These are admirableYou're also moving strongly into
the internet and telephony, but really you're a relative
newcomer to the dot com world - do you think you did
leave it late?
I don't think so, in that Virgin is already a global
brand. Brands like Amazon have had to spend hundreds
of millions of pounds you know, building their brands,
whereas Virgin is already well-known around the world.
Anyway that's my excuse, and I"m sticking with
it. Some people would say Richard, if you knew how
to use an internet yourself, or if you know how to
use a computer you would have been there five years
As you near fifty - I"m sorry to remind you -
but as you near fifty, next month, is it difficult
to be as flamboyant, as adventure-seeking, as unconventional...
as you were in the beginning?
I think there's something in that. I mean, I think
that we're going to have to find a younger person
to get out there and do the mad balloon and boating
trips that I used to do...
I don't believe that for a minute that you want to
put your feet up. Do you really?
No, I don't. I'm still.... maybe Peter Pan.... doesn't
want to grow up.
Mr. Branson.... Sir Richard Branson, thank you very
much for joining us tonight. Thank you.