Sir Richard Branson: Space is not the final frontier for the Virgin boss

If it's Thursday it must be Bondi beach. And if it's Bondi beach that must be Sir Richard Branson dangling from the end of a winch as the helicopter appears over the skyline and lowers him on to Australia's most famous stretch of surf and into the arms of several bikini-clad beauties. It is yet another publicity stunt to let the world know that Virgin Atlantic began flying the "kangaroo route" from London to Sydney this week.

If it's Thursday it must be Bondi beach. And if it's Bondi beach that must be Sir Richard Branson dangling from the end of a winch as the helicopter appears over the skyline and lowers him on to Australia's most famous stretch of surf and into the arms of several bikini-clad beauties. It is yet another publicity stunt to let the world know that Virgin Atlantic began flying the "kangaroo route" from London to Sydney this week.

"Every single time I am asked to do this sort of thing, or put on a silly costume and make a spectacle of myself, there is always something in the pit of my stomach that turns," says Branson. But this peculiar blend of the introvert and the extrovert, of brash entrepreneur and diffident family man, always comes back for more, no matter what his PR gurus decide to dress him up in next.

"There is a contradiction," he admits. "I used to be relatively shy and I have had to train myself out of it. I am much more comfortable now in public than I used to be. [Sir] Freddie Laker's advice when I launched the airline was that I had to get out and use myself to put Virgin Atlantic on the map because I wouldn't have the advertising budget to compete with the likes of British Airways."

But it is not just the Branson outfits that are forever changing at Virgin. There is a detectable mood shift in the man himself. For the first time since he launched the Virgin empire 35 years ago as a mail order record company, he seems ready to take his foot off the gas just a little and step back from the day-to-day running of the business.

Virgin, in all its forms, be it planes, mobiles or megastores, is running on rails (even, whisper it quietly, the train business) and Branson has got the art of applying the brand to an ever-wider array of goods and industries down to a fine art. Create a business, preferably with someone else's capital, develop it using the Virgin name, sell a chunk of it and then reinvest the proceeds in the next venture. Branson has been mortgaging his past to finance his future in this way for years.

But he is now looking for something different, a new challenge against which to pit his entrepreneurial wit and flair for self-publicity. It is called Virgin Unite - Branson's version of the Bill Gates Foundation. "I've reached the age [54] where I've made a lot of money, the companies are going really well and we've got a lot of talented people working for us. Now we are going to turn our business skills into tackling issues around the world where we can help," he says, citing the spread of HIV in Africa and the twin curses of malaria and malnutrition as the first issues which are likely to get the Branson treatment.

Cynics might see it as just another way of promoting the Virgin name for commercial gain. But Branson insists it is more than that. "In the next 30 years or so I can make an enormous difference to a lot of people's lives just by using the strength of my own brand name and being able to pick up the phone and get through to the president of Nigeria or Thabo Mbeki. We have the financial resources and the business know-how. If the Virgin foundation works as I hope it will, it could be that Virgin becomes better known for that than for the businesses we are in."

The Gates Foundation has benefited from the billions of dollars poured into it by the founder of Microsoft. Branson is coy about how much hard cash will go into his foundation other than to say that "over time more and more of the wealth of Virgin will go towards it". But, if past form is any guide, then much of the investment is likely to take the form of leveraging the Virgin brand.

Before he devotes himself to curing half the world's ills, there is one more market Branson has set his heart on conquering: space. In a little more than two years, the first Virgin Galactic spaceship will blast off with Branson inside, accompanied by his wife, his two children Sam and Holly, and his father (provided he passes the medical).

Is this, then, the final frontier for Virgin? "I hope not," replies Branson. There again, it is hard to see how he could go one better. "Space tourism does an enormous amount in terms of our global ambitions for the brand," he says. "From that point of view and as a business proposition, you can't really cap it. Every single time space is mentioned from now on, Virgin Galactic will be mentioned and every time space tourism is mentioned then Virgin will be there. If there is one move that ensures Virgin becomes one of the best known brands in the world if not the best known brand, then Virgin Galactic is it. I want Virgin to become the most respected brand in the world and in order for it to become the most respected, it has to be well known as well."

If there is one person who respects neither Branson nor his Virgin brand, it is Donald Trump, the American property tycoon turned reality TV sensation thanks to his rather cruel but compulsive series in which he sets about finding the next Donald Trump, ditching those who fail to make the grade with his trademark phrase "You're fired!".

Branson's rival show, Rebel Billionaire, has so far drawn only a fraction of the audience on American TV, prompting Trump to comment that Branson has got "zero personality". Branson says he would rather not get drawn into a war of words, but he finds it hard to conceal his contempt. "I disagree completely with what Trump stands for and his 10 rules of success. I met him for dinner once, just the two of us, and he spent the whole evening telling me how when he was down and out a few years ago and nearly went bankrupt, people he knew and bankers he dealt with whom he had thought were friends wouldn't return his calls. He said he had drawn up a list of 10 of these people and decided to spend his life trying to destroy them. I told him it was a waste of energy."

Branson's approach to people management could scarcely be more different. "My parents brought me up with lots of praise and little criticism. We all flourish with praise. Flowers do very well when they are watered and shrivel up when they are not and people are exactly the same whether you are a chief executive or a switchboard operator."

What, then, of the future for Virgin? Branson reels off a host of challenges - from creating a national airline in Nigeria and breaking into the South African financial services market to taking Virgin Mobile into China and adding another UK train franchise to the empire. Undeterred by the fiasco of the West Coast mainline, which has not exactly enhanced Virgin's brand image since it took over the route, Branson is bidding to bring the East Coast mainline from London to Edinburgh under his wing, competition authorities willing. "It sounds stupid to say so, but I don't regret going into trains. We had vision and we thought we could make a difference. In life you have got to take risks. Has it damaged the Virgin brand? Possibly a little bit but turn the clock forward a year or two and I think overall it will have improved the brand. I think we have just about survived it and brought the public with us. But I don't think we will ever make money running trains. It is a public service more than a business."

So, who does Branson hand this mighty business empire over to, with its £4bn in annual sales, 35,000 staff and 200 separate companies? He pauses before replying: "I don't know yet. We will see." It had always been Branson's ambition for his son to succeed him (his daughter has her heart set on medicine and is in the fourth year of training to become a doctor). Now, he suggests, another option is to hand it over to the foundation. "I got enormous satisfaction starting a business from scratch and I would like my kids to go out and prove they can do something like that themselves." And then come back and take over the family business? "Maybe my son will go off and prove himself and then come back. It's how your children remember you which is the most important thing and quite a long way down the list is what other people think."

High-flyer

Age: 54.

Education: Stowe School.

Career: Launched Virgin in 1970 as a mail order record business, went into music publishing in 1972, airlines in 1984, railways in 1997, mobile phones and financial services in 1999.

Pay: Undisclosed but personal wealth estimated at £2bn.

Hobbies: Ballooning, sailing, tennis.

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