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Richard Branson interview: Virgin chief on how age is moderating his appetite for risk-taking

As his businesses prosper Branson is pursuing his environmental ideals

James Ashton
Monday 15 June 2015 11:32 BST
Sir Richard Branson on board Virgin’s inaugural flight from Heathrow to Detroit
Sir Richard Branson on board Virgin’s inaugural flight from Heathrow to Detroit (Virgin Atlantic)

Here is a snapshot of Sir Richard Branson’s globetrotting itinerary. The other week, he was in Jamaica, performing night feeds and nappy changes for his three grandchildren. He’s just spent three days in Lake Como at a summit with partners discussing how to press governments into backing new carbon reduction targets.

Soon it’s on to Rwanda, where he is involved in farming and energy projects, and then London to see Virgin’s team compete in the Formula E all-electric car race. Oh, and in between, he’s led the publicity drive for Virgin Atlantic’s new route to Detroit, egging on a Motown troupe as they performed at 35,000ft and pitching balls at the Detroit Tigers baseball ground.

What does all this say about Britain’s best-known billionaire? The extrovert streak is still present and correct. Despite the fact he is turning 65 next month, there is no sign of his slowing down. Increasingly, it is charitable activities that take up his time.

It’s a big year for climate change. Talks in Paris in December are meant to produce a global agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol. Branson launched the B Team, a group of business leaders including Paul Polman of Unilever and the Indian industrialist Ratan Tata to challenge world leaders to commit to a global goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“We are hoping that governments will be bold and brave,” he says, sipping tea as we chat on the flight to Detroit. If enough effort is made with clean energy, Branson forecasts a tipping point. When solar, wind power and other new sources reach 20 or 25 per cent of the mix, it will cap the price of oil at no more than $50(£32) a barrel.

“That will do more to sort out education, health, more to help salary rises, more to stimulate the economy than anything else,” he says, adding: “Diesel cars should be absolutely abolished and we should never have anything to do with coal ever again.”

Virgin has been experimenting with green fuels for a decade, including butanol, an alternative petrol substitute to ethanol. Branson has also been backing a scheme trying to turn the waste from aluminium and steel plants into jet fuel. He admits: “Aviation fuels are hard – everything else is doable.”

The tycoon, whose empire stretches across gyms, trains, hotels and cable television, has never been afraid of contradictions: an environmental campaigner who part-owns an airline; an overt publicist whose finances are shrouded in a series of offshore trusts. In a sticky spot, he falls back on his charm. A question he can’t answer at a press conference? Invite an air hostess on stage to give a twirl of her Vivienne Westwood-designed cabin uniform. All those years of publicity stunts mean standing out from the crowd has become second nature. On a bicycle tour of Detroit the day after we land, he is the only one not to wear a helmet.

These days, some of the risk-taking that once defined him has been moderated. Abseiling is out since a bloody incident in Las Vegas, although Branson still managed to climb Mont Blanc with the kids last year and kite-surf across the English Channel.

“I am still doing fun things but I am not overtly trying to kill myself ballooning any more,” he explains. The business risks seem more calculated too – with one notable exception.

Branson at the launch of Virgin Atlantic in 1984 (Getty)

“Virgin Galactic?” Branson bursts out laughing. “Fourteen million dollars a month? Anyway…” His space venture, years behind schedule, became more than an expensive curiosity last year when a test pilot died in an accident over the Mojave desert in California. But the dream of tourists blasting off for $250,000 a pop is very much alive, he insists.

“They are doing a fantastic job, working day and night,” he says of his engineering team. “The new spaceship came out on its wheels last week. There is still work to be done: we are 12 to 15 months delayed by the accident but we will get back on track.”

Less heralded is OneWeb, a plan to create a giant communication network around the world to reach the three billion people who don’t have internet access. “The funding process for that is going on at the moment. I think we have got exciting things to announce.”

Branson tried something new for the first time 18 months ago: currency trading. “I just suddenly thought the dollar is going to be so powerful,” he says. Virgin piled in. “We made tens of millions, just that decision alone.”

His love of all things American means he has earmarked $1bn to spend there over the next five years in everything from hotels, a cruise line, a mass-participation sports venture, technology firms and clean energy. Closer to home, Virgin is getting drawn into the row over NHS privatisation by bidding for care contracts in Staffordshire.

Branson’s spending spree is funded by an upturn in his fortunes. Not only is the 30-year-old Virgin Atlantic back in profit after three years of losses, having swapped Singapore Airlines for Delta as its partner, but Virgin banked £230m from the sale of the gyms chain Virgin Active. Shares in Virgin America, his domestic airline and Virgin Money are both up sharply since floating last year. The success in banking – built around the Northern Rock assets which Gordon Brown resisted selling him as Prime Minister– is a source of pleasure, given his brushes with money men in the past.

“I remember the day when I had a bank manager come to my house to tell me he was going to put us out of business on the Monday. That was on the Friday.

“I had to push him out of my house. The idea that some years later we would have one of the best banks in England – you know, my whole life I laugh and pinch myself.”

What is less clear is how the Virgin brand would fare without Branson at the helm. Behind the scenes there is a team of managers who run the company, led by former City lawyer Josh Bayliss, but the bearded entrepreneur is still an enthusiastic front man. He can’t retire because he doesn’t regard his day job as actually working, but neither of his children, Holly and Sam, look like replacements yet.

“It would be lovely if they take it on to the next generation,” he says. “Holly spends a lot of time with Virgin Unite (his charitable foundation) and a lot of time with the business generally. She is very capable. Sam is running his production company and making a lot of films that help our not-for-profit ventures.”

That is a problem for another time. Having done Detroit, Branson can turn his efforts to Rwanda, where he is championing a scheme to help small farmers increase the productivity of their land and the installation of microgrids – local energy grids that can operate autonomously from the national network.

“It will stop a whole lot of carbon output,” he explains. “Now is the time in Africa to avoid them building new coal plants.”

There is more, closer to home. Branson would love to see some of London’s busiest streets closed to cars and handed over to cyclists to boost the environment. Just don’t expect him to ditch business entirely for the conventions of public office.

“I always love to come up with ideas but the last thing I ever want to be is involved in politics,” he says, calling to a passing air stewardess for another cup of tea.

Richard Branson: A life in short

Education: Studied at prep school Scaitcliffe in Berkshire and Stowe in Buckinghamshire until the age of 16. His headteacher said he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire when he left to concentrate on his magazine, Student.

Career so far: Opened a record shop in Oxford Street in 1971, and a record label a year later that scored a worldwide hit with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and signed the Sex Pistols. Launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984, Virgin Trains in 1993 and Virgin Mobile in 1999, which became Virgin Media in 2007. Branded cola and weddings were less successful. Net worth last measured at £4.1bn.

Personal: Lives on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands with second wife, Joan. They have two grown-up children, Sam and Holly, and three grandchildren. Relaxes by playing tennis and kite-surfing.

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