Interview - Richard Branson

Interview: Richard Branson

Lunch with Richard Branson
(Credit: The Bulletin)
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

At 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.

Richard's 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.

Defying 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.

When 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, stupid.

Branson 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.

Branson 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 person …" 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.

The 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."

Sir 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."

I 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.

But, 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.

Branson 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.

There 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'."

That was your idea?

"That was my idea, yeah," confirms Branson proudly. "Schoolboyish, but it's fun," he laughs - unusually, looking me in the eye.

But 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.

Branson 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.

The 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?

Branson 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.


Interview with Richard Branson
(Credit: ABC Foreign Correspondent)
Broadcast: 20/06/2000

Reporter: Jennifer Byrne

High-profile entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson speaks about bucking convention - and his imminent venture into Australian air travel.


Byrne: Good evening Sir Richard - thank you for joining Foreign Correspondent.

Branson: Thank you. Could you call me Richard please, I'm not... can't get used to this 'Sir Richard' business.

Byrne: 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?

Branson: 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.

Byrne: Richard, why "Virgin Blue"? I mean, isn't red the Virgin symbol?

Branson: 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.

Byrne: 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!"?

Branson: 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...

Byrne: But this is not the same as starting an airline, is it?

Branson: 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 it.

Byrne: You're not going to stop at an Australian airline launch, are you? I mean, you've got other plans I assume?

Branson: 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 say no.

Byrne: 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.

Branson: 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.

Byrne: 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?

Branson: 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.

Byrne: 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?

Branson: 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 ago.

Byrne: 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?

Branson: 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...

Byrne: I don't believe that for a minute that you want to put your feet up. Do you really?

Branson: No, I don't. I'm still.... maybe Peter Pan.... doesn't want to grow up.

Byrne: Mr. Branson.... Sir Richard Branson, thank you very much for joining us tonight. Thank you.


Richard Branson



Virgin Blue