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High Profile

The business?

Steve Turner

For many people, Sir Richard Branson is the likeable face of capitalism. Hundreds of companies worldwide bear his brand and are identified with his values. Third Way met him at the head office of Virgin Management.

Branson 2

You started out in the music industry with Virgin Records and, ever since, you have incorporated in all of Virgin's manifestations the glamour and eye for design of pop, the challenge to authority characteristic of rock and the concern for justice and a better world that came out of the Sixties counterculture. Is that a fair assessment?

I hope so. I left school as a 16-year-old to fight against the war in Vietnam, which many kids of my age disagreed with very strongly. I marched on the American embassy - there was a picture in Paris Match of a policeman trying to grab me! I've been trying to track it down.

Was that the demo in Grosvenor Square in March 1968 [which famously ended in violence and mass arrests]?

Yes. I actually walked arm-in-arm with Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave. So, I'm a lad of the Sixties.

That war was so awful. Many years later, [the then US Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara admitted that he and [President] Lyndon Johnson had made a ghastly mistake. They thought the North Vietnamese had torpedoed an American ship, so they bombed bases and storage facilities in North Vietnam the next day. They later realised that the 'attack' was a blip on a radar screen - but they decided to carry on with the war anyway, and hundreds of thousands of kids got napalmed.

Turn the clock forward and you have the build-up to[the 2003 invasion of] Iraq. McNamara co-operated on a documentary film called The Fog of War [2003] in which he admitted that he should have been prosecuted for war crimes and that Bush was about to make the same mistake again. Sadly, exactly the same mistake was made and it's resulted in a country that has now fallen apart completely.

I'm from a generation that thinks about what's going on in the world and tries to do something about it; and now I find myself in a position where maybe I can play a small part in averting a disaster, I'll give it my best.

When the Beatles founded Apple Corps in 1968, they had grand plans to extend the scope of the record company into publishing, film, electronics and even education. Did you look at what they got wrong and set out to get it right with Virgin?

Maybe, but I think the reason Virgin went into so many different areas was that one thing led to another. First of all we had a record company and then I felt we could do the merchandising, we could set up shops, we could set up foreign companies to distribute our products, we could make sure our artists were looked after much better by doing it ourselves.

I just saw situations where I thought we could run things better than other people and we'd give it a go. If I had a bad experience on an airline, I'd think: Screw it, maybe we could run an airline better than them!

Over the years, Virgin has become a unique way-of-life brand. We can take you by train to Scotland, where you can go to a Virgin health club - and then you can fly back on a Virgin plane. If you want to go on holiday, you can go on holiday with Virgin. If you want to go into space, next year you can go into space with Virgin. If you want to watch TV or get internet access, you can  go to Virgin. You can use a Virgin mobile phone -

Do you do funerals yet?

I've always said that you should only go into businesses where you have some experience. We started off with music - or the magazine Student, actually - so I jokingly say that ultimately it'll be old people's homes and funerals!

Funerals are an anathema to me, though. I honestly don't believe in them. I think that once your body is dead, there's no point in standing over it. But we'd be delighted to come up with a way to have a great party and a memorial service for people but the body would be nowhere to be seen.

My father died recently and we had the most fantastic celebration of his life and everybody laughed. He was 94 and he had lived a good life.

What sort of setting was this in? A church?

Not in a church but in a lovely situation. He loved nature. He loved the whole magic of evolution: he studied the Bible, he studied religion and he read Richard Dawkins' books and his personal opinion was that the magic of evolution was better than the magic of religion. He felt evolution was magnificent in itself and so he didn't want a religious ceremony, he wanted a celebration of the wonderful world we live in.

Would you favour something similar for yourself?

I think I'm more inclined that way at the moment.

I have friends who are very religious who are much brighter than I am, so I am certainly not dogmatic on this issue like Dawkins would be. It would be so comforting to think there was another life after this one; but my own inclination is to spend my time and my efforts imbuing in my children everything I've learnt. In the end, you're as good as what your children carry on.

You have said that you envy the faith of people such as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu. Do you say such things just to butter up religious people or is faith something you genuinely aspire to?

President Carter and Desmond Tutu have much more brilliant minds than me and they believe without any doubt that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. That absolute conviction is wonderful - and they live their lives as they preach. (Archbishop Tutu's humour is to die for. I was lucky enough to do a TV programme called Iconoclasts with him in 2008 and there was a lovely scene where we were teaching him to swim. He ought to be able to walk on water, but he didn't quite make it!)

I'm definitely someone who would be happy to be convinced. I think the most important thing is to lead your life in a way you can be proud of - that is, basically, following the Christian philosophy, celebrating this incredible world we live in - and if you're in a position to have an effect trying to stop wars or doing work on global-warming issues or protecting species, on land or in the oceans - or protecting people - you should do so. One day, you're going to lie on a bed knowing you're about to die. The question is: have you done everything in a way you feel comfortable with? If so, you can move on knowing that you did everything you could.

Have you studied Christianity yourself?

I remember reading all the gospels as a child, comparing paragraph with paragraph and trying to work out what the truth was. I went through a stage of being a complete believer.

What age were you?

Nine, 10 or 11, that sort of age.

But your upbringing was not religious, was it?

My father was agnostic, but my mother would take us to church occasionally.

What was it that in the end tipped the balance in favour of disbelief rather than belief?

I've studied the history of religions generally, and the ghastly wars that have been fought in the name of religion. Henry VIII effectively created our religion because he didn't want anything to do with the Pope! And when you look at the rack in Spain, and the horrors going on now in the Middle East between the Sunnis, the Shi'ites and the Alawites because almost 1,400 years ago someone broke away from someone else and their religion is right and someone else's is not… A lot of those religious leaders were warlords and you wonder how anyone can believe in such people.

And there are so many different religions and why should the fact that you were born in one particular part of the world make your religion better than anyone else's? Just because I was born in this country, why should Jesus Christ be any more right than any of the others? These are the sorts of questions that have gone round in my head.

I mean, the life of Jesus Christ is magnificent and the Bible is wonderful. Well, some of the Old Testament is a bit of a horror story, but the New Testament, most of it, is admirable!

What have you taught your children?

I've left it very much up to them to make up their own minds. We're not a dogmatic family about these things - we're open-minded people.

When you're looking at the beauty of nature from a hotair balloon, or dealing with some issue of justice, does it bring you closer to the concerns of religion?

Oh, yes. When it comes to morality, I think I'm 100-percent in line with the teachings of Christ. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela are the best examples of forgiveness on earth - they've forgiven the people who sinned against their people in the most graceful way through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The way it reunited their country was wonderful.

I've had people caught red-handed stealing from Virgin and I've called them in and sat them down and they've expected me to sack them and I've said to them: 'You've messed up big-time, but I'm going to give you another chance. Please don't do it again!' They've gone on to be some of the best employees we've had.

I think that principles like forgiveness are very important. As a company, we have a policy of taking on ex-convicts, on the basis that once they have a job they very, very rarely reoffend. Often they only offended in the first place because they've come from bad homes. We spend quite a lot of time trying to get other companies to take on more ex-convicts.

You are involved in so many different things, from the music industry and the internet to conflict resolution and poverty relief. How do you keep abreast of it all?

First of all, I surround myself with wonderful people, who take most of the burden off my shoulders.

Do you get constant briefings and digests?

Yes, I have a bit of that. I follow the news. I read the Economist. I'm interested in what's going on in the world. I love just diving in. It makes life far more interesting. For me, it's like having the most fascinating university education I never had.

You don't have a systematic way of keeping in touch?

No. I keep notebooks religiously, so I write down most conversations I have with people, I make lists of things I have to do.

What is your latest project?

We've just set up the B Team,1 an organisation of business leaders with people like Ratan Tata,2 Muhammad Yunus3 and the head of Unilever, Paul Polman, and we are looking at capitalism. We all agree that capitalism is the only system that seems to have worked over the last two or three hundred years - Soviet communism never worked - but it has its faults. Extreme wealth goes to a few footballers and tennis players, some businesspeople and so on - and while the wealthy are getting wealthier, the poor are getting poorer.

So, is there a new form of capitalism? That is something we're going to debate to see if we can come up with a way forward. Is there a way in which companies can account not just for their profits but for their environmental footprint and how they deal with their people? We've got a group of people together that we think are like-minded and doing good things with their own companies - Unilever are doing an enormous amount of wonderful work on the environment. We'll just see whether anything good can come of it.

Now, because we are involved in such a wide variety of things, one thing can help another. On occasions, the business leaders could help the Elders,4 who are dealing with conflict, and maybe they could also help the Carbon War Room,5 which works with the biggest polluters in industry to try to help them come up with imaginative ways to get carbon [dioxide] out of the atmosphere.

Different members of the Team have different aspirations. Jochen Zeitz has introduced a sustainabilityreporting structure for his company, [the French multinational] Kering. He feels that companies should report not just their bottom line but their environmental bottom line as well. Someone else feels that there should be an inventory acknowledging the good work the company is doing. Muhammad Yunus is a great proponent of the system whereby all the profits from a company are reinvested in the company itself.

Another subject we want to look at is whether governments should continue to subsidise 'dirty' fuel. We have a better chance of getting governments to listen if influential business leaders speak out as a body. One of the best ideas I heard recently came from someone who used to work for Nasa: the idea is to tax all 'dirty' fuels but to make that acceptable to the public by taking 100 per cent of that money and giving it back in people's wage packets at the end of every week.

Do you have strong views on fracking?

Fracking is about 50-per-cent cleaner than coal, so at first it looked like this would be good for the ecosystem and could kickstart the economy. The biggest downside - and I'm talking about responsible fracking - is that it needs to be properly regulated so that there's no release of methane whatsoever. If you get [even] a 3-per-cent release of methane from fracking, [it cancels out] all the benefits.

I think fracking is going to be a fact of life, though.

What drove you to develop Virgin Galactic? You've talked about 'space hotels' and 'motherships' - from anyone else it might be dismissed as lunacy.

The absolutely extraordinary things we do are things like the Elders, the Carbon War Room, the Ocean Elders6 and [the Global Commission on Drug Policy,] the campaign to treat drugs as a health problem7 - things that can make a massive difference in the world. But I'm equally thrilled to work for a company that can take people to space. In 20 years' time, I think every single person will be able to afford to go to space, because of us.

But we can do even more than that. For instance, we can put up an array of satellites around the world at a far cheaper price than anyone else, which will bring internet, wifi and telephonic access to people that don't have them at the moment and at a price that will be a fraction of what it would be with anyone else.

With this array of satellites, we're going to be able to spot any illegal fishing boats anywhere in the world in real time - something nobody can do at the moment. We should also be able to spot a rhino poacher in real time. We have to be careful how these things are used, but there are lots of obviously positive things that can come from that. It's very exciting.

Your current 'worth' has been estimated at £3.5 billion. Has your happiness increased as you've become more successful and wealthier?

I've had an extraordinarily fortunate life. I have a wonderful wife, who I've been with for 35 years, delightful children - a very loving family all round - lots of wonderful friends, and lots of fantastic people I work with. I'd be a very sad person if I didn't feel extremely blessed - I've had no cause not to be happy.

There have been times when I've thanked whoever is up there - particularly on things like [crossing the Pacific in a balloon],8 when there was no way I should have come home. Because I did come home, I've worked extraordinarily hard to say 'Thank you very much.'

I was going to ask who you give thanks to when you're successful, or when you're rescued.

I certainly send up a few prayers of thanks in situations where Somebody has been very kind to me.

So, at times you're a bad atheist?

Exactly! But I wouldn't [put it] as strongly as that. I'm a bad agnostic at times.

What might you be doing now if you hadn't started Virgin?

I started Student [in 1966, at the age of 16,] thinking I was going to become a journalist - I always wanted to be one. I had the grand title of 'editor and publisher', but I found that the publishing side - advertising, printing, distribution and other boring things - ended up taking more time than the writing.

I think that being a journalist would be fascinating because you're out learning about all aspects of life.

Do you think you'll ever give up work?

I'm very lucky: I don't see what I do as work. I thoroughly enjoy every minute of every day.

I think that as long as I'm mentally and physically fit I'll continue to do very much what I'm doing today - I think, more and more in the not-for-profit ventures. I've got wonderful people at Virgin who keep the engines going as I dive in and out. I love learning, and I am learning all the time. I love challenging myself and I love challenging people around me. The idea of retirement doesn't appeal to me very much.

 

1 See bteam.org.

2 Former chair of the principal companies in the Indian multinational conglomerate the Tata Group

3 The Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning pioneer of microcredit and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh

4 Co-founded by Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel in 2007 with the support of Nelson Mandela. See www.theelders.org.

5 Founded by Branson in 2009. See www.carbonwarroom.com.

6 Founded in 2010 by the US businesswoman and philanthropist Gigi Brisson. See www.oceanelders.org.

7 See www.globalcommissionondrugs.org.

8 In 1991, Branson and Per Lindstrand crossed the Pacific from Japan to north-western Canada - a record 6,761 miles, at speeds of up to 245mph - in the largest hot-air balloon ever flown.

 

Biography

Richard Branson was born in London in 1950, the eldest child of a barrister. He went to Stowe School but dropped out at the age of 16.

He set up a magazine, Student, with limited success, but through its pages began in 1970 a flourishing mail-order record business. With Nik Powell, he opened Virgin record shops in Notting Hill Gate and Oxford Street and then, in 1972, launched a record label, whose first release was Mike Oldfield's multi-million-selling debut album Tubular Bells (1973). In 1977, they signed the Sex Pistols. The first Virgin Megastore opened two years later.

The brand continued to expand, most notably with Virgin Atlantic in 1984, Virgin Trains in 1993, Virgin Mobile in 1999, Virgin Galactic in 2004 and Virgin Care in 2010. Failed ventures include Virgin Cola and Vodka (1994), Virgin Brides ('96), Virgin Clothing ('98), Virgin Cars (2000) and Virgin Racing (2010). Several hundred companies today bear the name 'Virgin'.

In 1986, he crossed the Atlantic in record time with Daniel McCarthy in a 72-foot powerboat. With Per Lindstrand in a hot-air balloon he crossed the same ocean in 1987, and the Pacific in 1991. He later made several attempts with Lindstrand and the late Steve Fossett to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon.

In 2007, he set the Virgin Earth Challenge, offering a prize of $25 million for a commercially viable way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In the same year, he co-founded the Elders with Peter Gabriel. He set up the Carbon War Room in 2009; joined the Ocean Elders in 2010; and formed the B Team with Jochen Zeitz in 2012.

His autobiography, Losing My Virginity (1998), was followed by Screw It, Let's Do It: Lessons in life (2006), Business Stripped Bare (2008), Reach for the Skies (2010), Screw Business as Usual (2011) and Like a Virgin (2012). The Virgin Way: How to listen, learn, laugh and lead is published by Virgin Books in 2014.

He was knighted 'for services to entrepreneurship' in 2000. In 2007, Time named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Last year, a YouGov poll suggested that he was the person British workers would most like as their manager.

He has a daughter and a son by his second wife, whom he married in 1989.

 

This interview was conducted on September 19, 2013.