The daredevil mogul on why he breaks bread with his enemies and wants the necktie abolished
THERE ARE BUSINESS TRAVELERS—and there is Sir Richard Branson. The Virgin Group founder, known as much for his death-defying stunts in balloons and boats as for his ventures, spends much of his very busy life in transit. The entrepreneur zips between continents, projects and the extravagant sorts of leisure pursuits one would expect of the man who owns the grooviest airline in the skies.
Mr. Branson started building his global empire in the early 1970s with Virgin Records, known for launching bands like the Sex Pistols. Since selling the music company in 1992, his portfolio has expanded to include everything from wine to space travel. But he is probably best known for his airlines, which have been shaking up the industry since 1984, when a commercial flight he was on was canceled and he started selling seats on a plane he’d chartered to fellow passengers.
Mr. Branson has been criticized for his readiness to take the spotlight, but his personal style of branding has paid off handsomely. Lately, he has been investing his celebrity (and funds) in a variety of causes, among them saving endangered species and promoting peaceful conflict resolution through an organization called the Elders. We caught up with the British billionaire during a layover at New York’s JFK airport, where he recently launched a new Virgin Atlantic preflight clubhouse.
I keep copious notes. Notebooks have always been a critical part of my life. If I’m on a Virgin plane, I’ll get up and meet staff, meet passengers, get feedback and write things down.
When I’m on Necker Island [in the British Virgin Islands] about all I’ve got on is SPF—Sun Bum and also Island Company sun cream.
Every day is different, absolutely fascinating and a learning experience. In Canada, I’m trying to get legislation passed to save the polar bear. I’m going to Madagascar to try to save the lemur. Yesterday I was on stage with Amnesty International; today I’m doing a bit of business with Virgin Atlantic.
I hate being in hotels with a thousand rooms. And I personally don’t like going into hotels where you’ve got formal check-in desks. I’d much rather come and sit on the couch and be checked in that way, or ideally be checked in before I’ve actually gotten to the hotel.
My watch is a Bulova Accutron limited-edition. Every time one is sold, a portion of the proceeds goes to Virgin Unite, my charity.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to set an example to get the necktie abolished. I mean, I just find it so sad going somewhere like Japan, where they’re all wearing suits. You look at these lovely pictures of them 100 years ago in their beautiful robes, and you think, ‘how on earth did the necktie ever catch on?’ I just find them uncomfortable and restricting. I think it’s people who run departments of companies, who’ve had to suffer all their lives and are damned if the next generation isn’t going to suffer, too.
I love to kiteboard. My board of choice is Cabrinha.
I’m not a very religious person, but if anybody was going to convert me, it would be Archbishop Tutu. He set an incredible example to the rest of the world, I think, when he helped bring about forgiveness in South Africa after the apartheid regime collapsed.
The reason I got into the travel business originally was out of frustration about the ghastly experience we used to get on other airlines. We literally started with one secondhand 747, crossing the Atlantic from London to New York to see whether people would go out of their way to travel on an airline that offered something a bit more personal. Fortunately, people did.
Jeans are great because you can wear the same pair of trousers 365 days a year and get away with it.
As a leader it’s important to always look for the best in other people—never criticize. If I ever said anything bad about anybody when I was a child, my mom would make me look in the mirror.
I’ve always believed in befriending your enemies. Years ago British Airways went to extraordinary lengths to put us out of business. After the court case, I rang up Sir Colin Marshall, who ran BA, and said, ‘would you like to come out for lunch?’ I think he wondered why on earth I was doing it. But we had a delightful lunch at my house in London and became friends and buried the hatchet.
There’s no better gift than a photograph. Stephen Colbert recently sent an enlarged, framed photo featuring him dressed as me, vacuuming, with a nude model on his back. It was similar to a photo of me kiteboarding, and it was gratefully received because the fire on Necker burned down my office and with it all my notebooks and photographs.
I love the music of Peter Gabriel, who is also one of my best friends.