“Hello, nice to meet you,” says Richard Branson, extending an index finger instead of a hand. His pinkies are wrapped in bandages, and he winces in pain. Two days before, the Virgin
Group founder, one of the world’s richest men and notorious daredevil, set a world record for the oldest person to kite surf the English Channel, at 61. (A day earlier, his son Sam had set the record for the world’s fastest crossing, at any age.)
Despite that, he’s already back at his London office with a full day booked — and you can hear his voice echoing down the halls.
Branson’s Virgin Group, founded in 1966, has an uncountable number of businesses, including an airline, a space shuttle and submarines, along with health clubs, charities and film company. He has also helped found organizations meant to save the world, such as The Elders, a group (featuring Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu) dedicated to solving global conflicts.
When not working, Branson plays, quite hard, on his own private Necker Island, in (where else), the Virgin Islands. His varied interests have one commonality: galling ambition.
Shall we begin? Congratulations on breaking the record this past Sunday.
Thank you very much. Do you kite surf? I’m afraid all my staff have to kite surf, otherwise
you’re going to lose your jobs. When am I going to be your boss?
Not until October. You haven’t gotten the job yet. Think of this conversation as a job interview. OK, OK. [Laughs]
While you were breaking that world record, I was supposed to run a 10K but ditched it. What separates me from you, besides the billions?
Well, I’ve got a gut feeling — I’ve only just met you — but I doubt there’s much that separates us both, if you’re going to go running 10K on a Sunday morning. You’re somebody that says, let’s live life to it’s full and give it a go. And my approach to life is, I’d much rather say yes than no — see what I’m capable of — and if my children say they’re going to kite surf the English Channel, I don’t want to be left behind. I want to be out there doing it with them. It’s fantastic to keep fit and see what you’re capable of.
Do you judge me for failing to run the 10K? Or would you judge me, if I was your actual employee?
I think, um — I think that people who make a point of trying to look after themselves, keep fit and healthy, I’d definitely give them a tick over somebody who’s let themselves go. If you’re fit and healthy, you actually get three or four hours extra in per day, and that adrenaline kick from being fit and healthy — nothing beats it. Even alcohol and drugs.
And what about sex?
Um, yeah sex is pretty damn good as well. [Checks watch] Yeah, excuse me, I’ve got to [go have some]…[Laughs]
No, yeah.You’re going to die one day–does that shadow fuel you?
I think that it’s counterproductive to think about death, because…I don’t like to think negative thoughts, and to me death is a negative thought. I try to find the best of everything
in life. It can make you think, what’s the point about certain things?
But death is a reality. Even though you’re optimistic, you must deal with reality, especially
as a businessman.
If you’re an optimistic person, you can make optimism happen — you can bring your desires to fruition. If you’re a pessimistic person, equally you can bring your worst fears to fruition. So I was brought up to be an optimist, to be positive. I love surrounding myself with positivepeople. I love to think that nothing is impossible. The more I go on in life, the more extreme ideas I have. So on the adventure side, we try to go to the bottom of the ocean, in a submarine, or go into space, both difficult technological challenges. But having almost realized those two dreams, I’m now setting us tougher challenges.
Can we come up with a cure for breast cancer, or prostate cancer, can we come up with a cure for diabetes? Can we get the best scientists in the world to not just think about taking people into space but to cure some of these problems?
To that end, you are interested in social entrepreneurism– businesses that make money by bettering the planet. Can I ask you something obnoxious first–can we compare wallets?
You know, I’ve never carried a wallet. Maybe it’s how I’ve made my money: I never carry any money. [laughs] “Can I borrow a fiver?” [laughs]
Does someone carry around your credit cards?
You know, the funny thing about making money or being successful is nobody will let you pay for anything. So I’ll be like, “I’ve made some money, I want to pay for it!” and they’ll say, “No, no, no, of course not.” So…
OK, so my point was going to be, your wallet is probably bigger than mine, and that you have more money than all our readers. And sometimes, starting or supporting social entrepreneurism can be expensive. The bad stuff — processed food, non-hybrid cars, etc. — is cheaper. What can a regular person do?
First of all, you have to analyze what a business is. It’s one that is hopefully creating something
that is going to make a difference in other people’s lives. And if you’re going to spend your life creating a business, it might as well be positive. Because if it makes a positive difference, it’s likely to make you money. And if it’s making you money, it’d be great if you could spend some of the money, or the time of the people around you, to tackle some of the problems of the world.
Right. But it gets tricky because some of the very desirable things leave quite a footprint. Like the amount of environmental damage just to make a iPod is staggering. Do you have an iPod?
Um, I have an iPad. And my footprint is horrendous! I’ve got 400 airplanes, a spaceship company, 100 trains, 100 train sets. And so on. So I most likely have one of the worst carbon footprints in the world. Yet, on the profits I make from all these dirty businesses, we try to develop clean fuels, and we’re close to being very successful
on that. We’ve also got the Carbon War Room, a not-for-profit, to get gigatons of carbon out of business. And so on. We’ve by no means balanced our books but we’re trying. And I do think the answer to the world’s problems are most likely not NOT to buy an iPad, but a technological answer. It’s up to entrepreneurial people to get out there and invest in ways of saving the world.
You wanted this global edition of Metro to be about legalizing drugs. If drugs were legal, would you have a Virgin arm that sold drugs or opiates?
Because I’m on the Global Drug Commission, I’ve decided not to invest in medical marijuana, only because, I mean: I’m on the Global Drug Commission! To try to have drugs treated as a health problem, not a criminal problem. Because 100% [of the Commission] believe that’s the right way for it to happen, as do all the other drugs commissioners.
The war on drugs has patently failed. And in countries where they have treated drugs as a health problem, they’ve largely taken care of the problem: Portugal, all drugs, hard drugs, soft drugs, the state will provide you with your clean needles, your methadone. And it’s working. So I’ve decided as a businessman, it’d be unwise to get involved. I’d lose my credibility as an impartial commissioner.
That said….I brought a joint. Will you smoke it with me?
Um. Um. [Considers] Well, I would certainly, I would certainly, I would–right now, if I smoked a joint, I would keel over because I’m just managing to get my words out having had so much salt water in me after kitesurfing the Channel. But the — no look: As far as I’m concerned, I’ve told my children
this as well, I’d be really pissed off if they started smoking cigarettes, because I don’t want them to fuck up their bodies, but if they smoke the occasional joint, I wouldn’t be unhappy. And so, one day, you and I will have a joint together.
Maybe when you guest edit.
You know, I do think the tide [towards legalizing drugs] is turning. Mexico just lost their president, who has waged this war on drugs–he lost the election. Colombia has just legalized marijuana in small quantities. My son’s bringing out a documentary called “Taboo,” a powerful film about this. And interestingly, if you want to, if you’re thinking about your circulation, you’ll find it’ll get a big boost from dealing with drugs.
OK. We’ll send you a lineup and we can work out some ideas.
It means the paper being brave but fuck it. We could do what’s going on in Portugal and Switzerland and Germany. I could get President Cardoso from Brazil to do a piece, I could get President Carter to do a piece.
Does President Carter smoke marijuana?
Uh, he feels very strongly it should be legalized.
Do all the Elders feel that way?
Pretty well all of them. President Cardoso, who is the head of the drug commission, he’s one of the Elders.
OK, we’ll focus your issue on drugs.
OK, and prostitution. Would you do that? Have a branch of Virgin called: Virgin’s, what…?
Hmm. [Laughs] I don’t think we’d make enough money!