The economic crisis of 2008 was unprecedented. Formerly stalwart companies,
including AIG, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual, disappeared or
needed government funds to stay afloat. The prices of stocks, oil and gas
fluctuated wildly. The worldwide credit crunch choked businesses and
individuals. This hasn’t been a time for fainthearted businessmen, yet Richard
Branson, the founder and chief of one of the U.K. ’s largest private groups of
companies, Virgin Group, continued to run his $23 billion travel, leisure,
telecom and finance conglomerate as if it were a start-up. Branson’s an
unconventional chief executive who owns Virgin’s more than 200 businesses
without flowcharts or meetings. Though he has a pool of secretaries, he keeps
his appointments in a dog-eared paper diary and scribbles ideas and phone
numbers on his hand. He spends an enormous amount of time talking to and
sometimes even hanging out with his employees.
Branson’s Virgin is unlike any other company in the world because the boss is
unlike any other. His companies—a bevy of Virgins that includes Virgin Atlantic,
Virgin Drinks, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Mobile and the newly launched Virgin
America airline—do everything from marrying people and selling them vodka
and phones to putting them up on a private island and massaging them as they
fly across oceans. Perhaps most unusual for a modern CEO, Branson seems to
be having fun. Rarely does a day go by without a Virgin-related party or some
publicity stunt, such as when he startled passengers on a 747 by appearing in a
stewardess’s uniform or slogged down another jet’s aisle, wearing a wetsuit,
mask and snorkel. His widely read business books have titles like Business
Stripped Bare and Screw It, Let’s Do It.
Branson’s personal wealth totals at least $5 billion, and Virgin is expanding
seemingly daily into new businesses, including recent U.S. additions like Virgin
Money, a financial-services company, and Virgin Charter, an online marketplace
for private jets. In the past 20 years he has taken over the failing British railway
system, presided over the opening of a hundred Virgin Megastores, opened
dozens of Virgin Active health clubs, launched V2, a new music label, and
expanded Virgin Atlantic’s international services. Branson has also fulfilled a
dream to start a U.S. airline. Virgin America is a year old and has already been
named best domestic airline by Travel and Leisure magazine.
It all began with a magazine for students that Branson founded when he was
16. To keep the literary venture afloat, Branson started a mail-order discount
records business, which led to a record store, the first Virgin. Branson soon had
a goal: to cover the earth in everything Virgin, his ubiquitous brand of travel,
entertainment and almost every other type of goods conceivable. Now the earth
is no longer a limitation. Branson plans to move into space with Virgin Galactic,
which will offer tourist flights into the upper atmosphere and, eventually, a space
In addition to his businesses and stunts, Branson is known for being an
adventurer who has broken world records in ballooning and sailing. He made
four attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon. In one of them,
his balloon plummeted out of control in the Algerian desert; the previous time he
almost died over the ocean. With his two children Branson recently set out to
break the record for a transatlantic crossing between New York and England on
the Virgin Money, a 99-foot yacht. They failed.
Contributing Editor David Sheff, who last interviewed Daniel Craig, cornered
the tycoon for an unusual conversation. “Eve interviewed many billionaires and
business titans,” Sheff reports, “and have come to expect that CEOs and other
extremely successful businessmen tend to be short-tempered and even tyrannical
bosses. But Branson’s employees praise him as a genuinely nice guy who
inspires rather than berates his staff. We discussed a wide range of issues, from
the economic crisis to his burgeoning empire and his business philosophy, to the
energy crisis and the ailing airline industry. He also predicted a first: space
Playboy: This year has arguably been the most traumatic for the world economy
since the Great Depression. How has Virgin held up?
Branson: About two years ago we began to sense problems with the banks
related to credit. As far as we were concerned, those problems were a warning
that things could ricochet throughout the whole system. At the time, we sold all
our public shares of non-Virgin companies. As a result we weren’t invested in
the stock markets, and Virgin was in a better position than most companies when
things began to unravel. Our companies are extremely well funded. We have
strong cash positions. Virgin Atlantic alone has $1.5 billion in cash.
Playboy: On what do you ultimately blame the crisis?
Branson: Greed and a lack of regulation. It’s stunning to think that the
combination could bring the world to a precipice. It’s unbelievable that the
institutions gambled to such an extent. It’s not surprising they lost the gamble.
Playboy: When banks like Washington Mutual, brokerages like Lehman and
insurance companies like AIG began going under, were you surprised?
Branson: No one realized the problem was as widespread and fundamental as it
was. I didn’t know the degree to which regulators had no checks and balances on
banks. Also, I didn’t know the greed had gotten completely and utterly out of
Playboy: Did you support government intervention?
Branson: Something had to be done, though I hate the idea of bailing out the
people who got us into the mess. Those people certainly didn’t bail out the
individuals and small businesses that got into trouble and couldn’t pay back their
loans. On the other hand, those companies put so many jobs at risk that
something had to be done. They put the world at risk, so a bailout was necessary.
I just hope we learn. If nothing had been done, we would have been talking
about a 1929-like crash. Even with a bailout, things remain uncertain. Some
banks never got caught up in speculation and risk. They were conservative and
didn’t get drawn in. In England, Lloyds TSB didn’t. It had been criticized for
conservative, steady profits but became the biggest bank in England by taking
over HBOS, which did get carried away.
Playboy: What happens next?
Branson: Of course we don’t know. A recession is quite possible. We’ll see. I
don’t envy the new president having to sort it out. Hopefully, we’ll learn so
nothing like this ever happens again. Hopefully, the regulations will be in place.
Playboy: How vulnerable is Virgin to a recession?
Branson: We’re pretty strong. Compared with many companies, we’re in a good
position to weather it.
Playboy: But won’t people travel less and spend less on everything you sell?
Branson: Yes, but other things will shift. If there’s less demand, the price of oil
comes down, for example. It’s a natural hedge that can help us as a company to
balance expenses if fewer people are traveling. We’ve been through 9/11 and
other global crises before and never had a company go bankrupt. There may be
less business out there, but there’s also going to be less competition. I think we’ll
be all right. That’s not to say we won’t be affected. We’re all connected.
Everyone will be affected to some degree.
Playboy: You just launched a bank in the U.S. Given the specific problems with
the American banking and financial systems, why would you start a bank now?
Branson: Virgin Money aims to help people find alternative sources of lending,
especially during this adverse credit climate. It facilitates lending among friends
and family, thus keeping wealth in the family. It beats out the banks and
mortgage companies that are quite expensive and difficult to get loans from,
especially now. We want to help people borrow. So I think it’s a worthwhile
business to make it easier for people to borrow money to start up their own
business or pay for college tuition, which is a huge problem now that private
loan options are shrinking.
Playboy: Banking isn’t the only troubled business you’re entering in the U.S.
Given the price of fuel, isn’t this a crazy time to expand your airlines? The
industry is in utter disarray.
Branson: Which is exactly why there’s great opportunity. Over the years a lot of
airlines have gone into Chapter 11 or gone bankrupt. Some of the really big
airlines that are left could topple. At least one may topple soon.
Playboy: Which airline?
Branson: It doesn’t take much imagination to guess. But one of the two giants is
likely to go. When airlines are struggling it is quite a good time to come in and
set up a good-quality product. People seek out quality. That hasn’t changed.
We’ve got brand-new planes, unlike big airlines like United. Our cost basis is
much better than theirs. We don’t burn as much fuel.
Playboy: How are you able to burn less fuel?
Branson: We have newer, much more fuel-efficient planes, brand-new Airbus
A320s, which are 30 percent more fuel efficient than the average fleet of the
other airlines. They don’t need maintenance so much. They’re much more
reliable, so we don’t have cancellations and don’t have to pay out lots of
compensation. Also, our overhead is less because we haven’t had years and
years of working with unions sticking guns at our heads.
Playboy: Are you against unions?
Branson: Unions have to prove a point and be useful, so they often create
rancor. It happens a lot with many of the big airlines. We don’t have unions. The
reason I hope we won’t ever need to have them is they’re a barrier between the
company and the staff.
Playboy: Many people would say unions protect workers.
Branson: It’s up to us to make sure we look after our people well enough so
they don’t feel they need a union. One never knows, though. We could mess up
sometime and end up getting one. We’ll just have to hope we can run the
company in such a way that we don’t have that happen. If the people who work
for us are happy, there’s no need.
Playboy: To lighten its jets and save fuel, Air Canada’s Jazz has just announced
it is removing life vests from its planes. Will you?
Branson: [ Laughs ] On Virgin, if we happen to land on water, we’ll still give you
a life vest. I’m always amused the Civil Aviation Authority insists that when we
advertise for flight attendants, we have to include “Must be able to swim.” I
might be able to understand it for long-haul flights across the Atlantic; I’m not
sure if it’s quite so relevant domestically, but there we go.
Playboy: Given your well-publicized concerns about the use of fossil fuels and
their impact on global warming, is it responsible to expand your airline empire?
Branson: It’s true we’re in a number of dirty industries, one of which is our
airlines. Airlines do use a lot of fossil fuel and emit a lot of C0 2 . What can we
do about it? We could sell the airline and get out of the business. If we did,
though, somebody else would come in and take up the slack; someone else
would be emitting all that carbon. One alternative is to aggressively work to
change things so the industry becomes part of the solution to the global-warming
problem. That’s what we’re doing. As I said, first of all we have planes that burn
less fuel. Next, we’re taking 100 percent of all the profits from the Virgin
Group’s transportation companies—including Virgin Trains, Virgin Blue in
Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, our Brussels airline and our Nigerian
airline—and plowing them into efforts to come up with alternative, clean energy,
whether solar, wind or something else. We’ve had breakthroughs already. The
biggest is through a company called Solyndra that we invested in. It’s producing
the most efficient solar panels ever made. Over the next two to three years we
hope to get the cost of producing electricity on the grid down to a level where
it’s actually cheaper to use solar than coal. We’re doing other things, too. We set
up a $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge for anybody who can extract the
existing carbon from the atmosphere. We’re also setting up a global war room to
encourage people to come up with geoengineering ideas. We’re doing these
things at the same time we’re doing whatever we can at Virgin Atlantic and the
other airlines, including Virgin America.
Playboy: What went wrong with the American airline industry?
Branson: It hasn’t really changed its spots in years and years. It’s just
remarkable how these companies have remained below average. The Goliaths
haven’t been able to change when it comes to quality. I think the consumer’s
worst enemy is the American government bailing out the airlines time and time
again and not letting them go bankrupt. In a forest, when trees become
cumbersome, the old die and young trees sprout up. JetBlue is the young tree
that sprouted up to the enormous benefit of the American public. Southwest is
still doing a pretty good job, at least compared with most of the airlines. But the
others are generally terrible.
Playboy: Isn’t it true that 9/11 devastated the airline industry?
Branson: Yes, and I think it was right that the U.S. government helped the
airlines after 9/11. Interestingly, though, the British government didn’t do the
same for us, and we were competing on many of the same routes and had to face
the same problems. But for them to carry on subsidizing the airlines was just
ridiculous. Continuing after they go into Chapter 11 is part of the problem: It
enables inefficient airlines to get another round of financing and carry on in the
same inefficient way. It’s much better if, when you’re inefficient, you go
bankrupt and disappear. I doubt Chapter 11 in America will ever be repealed, but
it’s not good from the consumer’s point of view. It means you have these big
inefficient carriers continuing to charge exorbitant rates because of the overhead
that has built up over decades. At some stage one of these big guys will go, I
hope sooner rather than later.
Playboy: You mentioned Southwest and JetBlue. How does Virgin differ from
Branson: We’re better than they are. Southwest is now more than 30 years old.
It has been tough for them to keep the spirit they had in the beginning. It’s still a
good airline but not an exceptional one. JetBlue has a more youthful vision. We
have the advantage of being the newest kid on the block, with all the latest toys.
Playboy: Airline employees often seem frustrated and overwhelmed. Can you
keep Virgin employees happier?
Branson: You have to give them the tools to do a good job so they can be proud
of the job they’re doing. Often on other airlines the staff is frustrated because the
food has run out, the seats are broken, the lighting or entertainment system isn’t
working, baggage is lost or there are delays. Something’s gone wrong, and
they’re on the front lines. You must give them the right tools to do their job. Also
you must appreciate them. If you take care of people properly, they’ll keep their
spirits up and perform and deliver. The challenge is to make sure you never lose
that as time goes on. We do that at the airline and, I hope, at our other
companies, whether it’s Virgin Mobile or the other new businesses in the U.S.,
such as Virgin Money and Virgin Charters.
Playboy: What about the cell-phone company? Don’t we have enough of those
in the U.S.?
Branson: We’ll come into any business we think we can perform in better than
others, to provide something to customers. It has gone very well. We were one of
the fastest companies in America to reach a billion-dollar turnover. We haven’t
yet got the value of Google. We’re working on that. We’re just launching into the
postpaid market. Virgin Mobile launched some good music festivals in America,
which is about keeping the brand young and fresh. Virgin Mobile in the U.S. was
one of the fastest-growing companies in the history of corporate America. It was
the first national product we broke in the States, though we had bands like
Genesis, Lenny Kravitz and Janet Jackson break in America, which helped build
Playboy: There have been some notable Virgin failures. What happened with
Branson: We launched Virgin Cola in England, and it was fantastically
successful for a period of time. I met a lady who worked for Coke in Atlanta.
She was English. She said she watched the success of Virgin Cola in England
and went to the board of Coke in Atlanta and basically said, “We have to crush
Virgin Cola. You’ve got to take it seriously as a brand that could catch fire and
take over the world. It’ll be the only brand in the world that could really take
Coke on.” She said she was put in charge of a SWAT team and sent to England.
Basically they just lavished discounts anywhere we were in stock. They
threatened to withdraw fridges from small retailers. They did to us what British
Airlines had done to us as an airline some time before. Coke just had enormous
clout. People had to stock Coca-Cola because it was a generic name for soft
drinks. They damaged us quite badly. Having said that, we’re now set up in
about 20 countries around the world. We’re a very profitable company. We’re
even the number one cola in Bangladesh, of all places.
Playboy: Is there anything you wouldn’t attach the Virgin name to?
Branson: Cigarettes. I’ve got nothing against adults killing themselves in
whatever way they wish—boating, cigarette smoking, whatever—but I think it
would be wrong for us to encourage people to smoke.
Playboy: Some people say a company has to be known for one thing; otherwise
it dilutes its expertise.
Branson: I personally think that’s a load of bollocks. However, if you look at the
top 20 brands in the world—which I think maybe Virgin just scrapes in there—
the other 19 all specialize in one area, as Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Nike do. But
Virgin is a way-of-life brand. As such, we can move from music companies to
airlines, from airlines to mobile phones, from mobile phones to train companies,
from train companies to health clubs, from health clubs to banking and so on
fairly seamlessly—as long as every new venture we do enhances the brand and
we make a real difference.
Playboy: What about the famous stories of companies that flounder when they
fail to stick to their knitting and branch out into unrelated fields?
Branson: When we went from music, with Virgin Records, into the airline
business, people thought we were completely mad. How could somebody
running a record company know anything about the airline business? The people
fretting about that were meanwhile running the airline business into the ground.
They had forgotten that entertaining people in the air is very important. We
moved into the airline business and brought with us our experience in the music
business. With the music company and airline company, we knew our goal was
the same: to entertain people, give them a good experience. The keys are the
same in any business.
Playboy: Keys such as-
Branson: Hiring great people and keeping them happy. If your staff is inspired
and enjoying their work, they’ll do what it takes to make the company succeed.
In a nutshell, that’s it. As a result we bring our experience and expertise into
every new venture that comes along that interests us, whenever we want to shake
up an industry. Life has been far more rewarding and interesting by our going
into a lot of different sectors. We try to make sure those industries are never the
same again because of Virgin’s attack on them. Virgin’s approach is to look after
you throughout your life as much as possible. Hopefully, you’ll be able to come
across a Virgin company to satisfy your needs in quite a few different areas. But
I knew nothing about the airline business. Financial-services industry, soft-drink
business—any of them—until I started.
Playboy: Is your business philosophy all self-taught?
Branson: I never took a course in management. I’ve been fortunate to learn by
experience, by making mistakes, by trying. I’ve learned every day by doing
things different and new. Having so many different businesses has kept it
fascinating. Every one of them helps me with the previous one, from the record
business to the airline business and banking—learning, learning, learning,
Playboy: Is there an overall lesson on how to keep a company vital?
Branson: It all comes down to people. Nothing else comes close. Motivating
people, bringing in the best. You assume every switchboard operator will excel,
and they will. Often people make mistakes, but you allow for that, too. Praise
people—like plants, they must be nurtured—and make it fun. Value them and
give them the opportunity to contribute in ways that excite them. The kinds of
people we employ are not afraid to take risks. If someone mucks up, they don’t
get a bollocking from me. They know they’ve mucked up, and they redouble
their efforts. We’re lucky because of the variety of places to go at Virgin: No one
gets stagnant. When our people see an air hostess become the managing director
of her own business, there is motivation. Keep it vibrant. Everything comes back
to people. Nothing else. You get loyalty, enthusiasm and great service for your
Playboy: You still travel with a notebook made of paper, not a notebook
Branson: Old habits die hard. My notebook suits me. My whole life has been
ruled by my notebook. Everything I do I write down in my notebook or scribble
on my hand if I don’t have my notebook handy.
Playboy: You’ve talked a lot about business in terms of fun and social
responsibility, but isn’t business really about the bottom line—making money for
Branson: I wrote a lot about this in my new book, Business Stripped Bare. I’ve
tried to get across my philosophy as much as I can. Basically, if any company
actually thinks about putting shareholders first and is concerned just with profits
and the bottom line, it’s likely to fail. Company after company lost its way when
it came down to it. When you go into business you’re taking a blank canvas and
filling it. You have to make it the most perfect painting ever. If you’re creating a
new airline or anything else, you’ve got to make it the best. Otherwise, why
bother? If you can get everything right—if you have the perfect painting—your
staff will believe 100 percent in your company. They’ll believe your company
will deliver the most fantastic experience for people. Then you get a
commitment from them. You get a commitment from customers. Ultimately your
company will become profitable. Then you’ll be able to reinvest that money into
another challenge where you feel you can make a difference. But that shouldn’t
be the reason you do it. It should be to create something you’re proud of.
Playboy: You’ve tried to make a difference in politics as well as in business. At
one point you tried to intervene and stop the war in Iraq. What exactly
Branson: We had Nelson Mandela standing by in South Africa with a private jet
to fly him to see Saddam Hussein. We needed to find a way Saddam Hussein
could have bowed out, his head held high, and avoided war. We might have been
able to do that. Mandela wanted South African president Thabo Mbeki’s
blessing, which he got. It was coming, but before Mbeki finally said yes, the
Americans started bombing Baghdad.
Playboy: Do you think you could actually have prevented the war?
Branson: We’ll never know, will we? It did teach me that the world needs a
group of elders, the most respected people in the world. So we started a group
called the Elders. Mandela and Gra^a Machel, the women’s rights advocate,
were the founding elders. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Carter,
microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, former United Nations secretary-general
Kofi Annan, the activist Ela Bhatt from India, President Cardoso from Brazil and
a few others are part of the Elders team. The group’s basic reason for being is to
go into a conflict situation and use its moral authority to try to address whatever
is happening. They’ll meet people on their own terms and help work with them
to resolve issues. One of their best successes was in 2007 in Kenya. The leaders
of the opposition felt they had been cheated in the election. There was horrific
bloodshed on the streets. Gra^a Machel, Kofi Annan and Archbishop Tutu went
in and took the president and the leader of the opposition aside. They went to a
game reserve. They worked there and came out with a coalition government,
bringing peace back to Kenya. It’s a remarkable example of how it can work.
Now the Elders are looking at other conflicts. They’ve been to Darfur and Sudan
to see what they can do there and have recently completed a successful mission
to Cyprus. They’re looking at Palestine and Iran. They have no ax to grind.
They’re not affiliated with any government. They can just try. They have
enormous moral courage and an agenda that is only about humanity.
Playboy: Have you considered gathering a group of business elders—you and
your peers Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the like—to take on the world financial
Branson: We’ll see what happens. If Congress completely fucks up, it may be
something we would try to push through.
Playboy: Do you sometimes make decisions that are not necessarily the best for
business but rather to make a political or social point?
Branson: In general, yes. Fortunately, we can do that. As a private company, we
can stick our neck out and do things we feel strongly about. If it’s more
appropriate, we can do things with our foundation, which tries to find new ways
to help social problems.
Playboy: In the U.K. Virgin has a strong brand and reputation. In the U.S.,
though, you have a long way to go.
Branson: It’s something like 80 percent in the major cities but drops off
dramatically in Middle America. We have Virgin Megastores in many major
cities. They may have heard of us through Virgin Atlantic. It’s growing with
Virgin Mobile and Virgin America. Maybe they have heard of us through my
boating and ballooning activities or jumping off buildings and stupid things like
that. I always get a warm welcome when I’m in America.
Playboy: Speaking of your boating and ballooning, in 2007 your friend Steve
Fossett, with whom you collaborated and competed, disappeared in a small
plane. What went wrong? He was an experienced pilot.
Branson: I have no idea what happened. All I can say is he led a life he can be
proud of. He lived the most full-on life of anyone I know. He was the greatest
adventurer ever. What’s extraordinary is he didn’t start his adventuring until he
was 55, and he achieved unbelievable things. He had 130 world records in about
20 different sectors. He had no experience in each field and still became the best
Playboy: He beat you in your push for an around-the-world ballooning record.
Branson: Yes. On our try we hit bad weather, and he managed to get the right
weather. If there’s anybody in the world I would want to be beaten by, he’s the
one. Steve’s life was just pure adventure—just trying to achieve any aeronautical
feat that hadn’t been accomplished.
Playboy: Does his accident make you think twice about some of your
adventures and the risks you take?
Branson: The interesting thing is he didn’t die doing anything risky. It’s like
Lawrence of Arabia dying on a motorcycle when he came back to England after
spending years fighting in Arabia.
Playboy: But are your adventures worth the risk?
Branson: I enjoy life too much to do anything too foolhardy. I recently turned
down a chance to go after the land speed record because I just felt it was too
much like tossing a coin—heads you die, tails you live—and that’s unacceptable.
I love life and love living it to the fullest. I want the richest life possible. It’s all
part of it: building companies, being pulled out of the water four times by
Playboy: Are near-fatal crashes part of the fun?
Branson: The moments when things go horribly wrong are some of the worst
moments of my life. I remember a Pacific crossing about a few hours into the
trip. We dropped an empty fuel tank, and with it went two thirds of our full fuel
tanks. We calculated that we had little chance of crossing the Pacific unless we
could get up to speeds of 180 miles an hour. Somebody was very kind to us. The
balloon sped along; we were very fortunate to cross. But those can be lonely
moments, ones when you ask what on earth has made you decide to be up there.
Having said that, I’ll say it’s also incredible. I generally forget the awful
moments and remember the good ones. I may swear never to do it again, but a
week or two later I’m zesting for more. It’s a bad streak in me.
Playboy: Were you sobered when your family nearly died in a car crash in
Branson: It was much worse, since it wasn’t just me. It was terrible. We were
Playboy: What records would you still like to beat?
Branson: My kids came on the most recent one: an attempt for a record in a
transatlantic crossing in a single-hulled sailboat. We had to wait for the right
weather. I hadn’t done an event for 10 years. It was lovely to be back doing
something like this, especially lovely to be doing it with my children.
Playboy: Your wealth allows you to do pretty much whatever you want. Do a
billionaire’s eyes ever wander over the prices on a menu?
Branson: I remember when I was on my houseboat and somebody said to me,
“Have you bought The Independent yet?” and I said, “No, I haven’t. I didn’t
actually know it was for sale.” He said, “No, I meant have you bought a copy of
The Independent .” But I have a pretty good, balanced life. I play hard and work
Playboy: You’re creating another business built on adventure: Virgin Galactic,
which will offer rides into space. Is it a realistic venture?
Branson: It’s completely realistic, and it may be the most exciting new company
of all. We’re doing a lot of work to prepare. We’ve developed a spaceship. It’s
remarkable. We spent a lot of time thinking about what sort of experience people
will want to have.
Playboy: What will people want?
Branson: They’ll want to have big windows so they can look out and enjoy the
space experience. They’ll want to experience weightlessness. They won’t want
to be sick. You have to think of every single little detail. We’ll do about a year of
extensive test flights before we take passengers on board. The mother ship was
unveiled two months ago, and it will be flying next month. The spaceship will be
ready to test in about 12 to 15 months.
Playboy: Are you convinced there’s enough interest in space travel to build a
Branson: About 60,000 people have already inquired. A couple of hundred have
already paid the full price up front.
Playboy: How much will a trip to space cost?
Branson: Two hundred thousand dollars.
Playboy: What will the experience be like?
Branson: We’re planning about a three-hour trip total. The spacecraft will have
five passenger seats. Each passenger will have a really good window. You’ll go
up in the spaceship, attached to the mother ship, to 60,000 feet, then the
spaceship will be dropped off. At three times the speed of sound you’ll shoot
your way into space. Then you experience weightlessness and have a spectacular
view of Earth. The ship will drift back into Earth’s atmosphere like a
shuttlecock; it won’t have to blast its way back through. That takes away ah the
risks associated with reentry—it’s far safer than what the Russians or NASA has
done. Safety obviously is critical if one is going to have a successful business in
space tourism. Also, this being a Virgin spacecraft, we’ll make you as
comfortable and the trip as fun as we can. Three years from now I hope to be on
the first flight. People like Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock, the
environmentalist—he’s 89 years old—are coming as well. That will be just the
beginning. Our ultimate dream is to have a Virgin Hotel up in space.
Playboy: Do you have plans for one?
Branson: We’ve got drawings. It has lovely see-through bubbles that you can go
into. Say two of you could go into these bubbles outside the hotel; instead of
sitting on a balcony, you could be floating around in these bubbles, looking at
the world and watching Argentina pass between your legs.
Playboy: When do you foresee the grand opening?
Branson: I would hope it would happen in my lifetime. It may take longer, but
at least we’re starting down the road. We’ll provide an incredibly life-changing
experience for people. I wonder what nationality you would be if you were born
in space? I wonder who will be the first couple to have sex in space? Weightless
sex could be something, right? I mean, somebody must have done it weightless.
Playboy: What inspired you to get into the condom business?
Branson: No one was talking about condoms in Britain, even during the worst
of the AIDS epidemic. We launched our company, Mates, in order to promote
condom use and to stop the spread of not just HIV but also cervical cancer and
other STDs and to control unwanted pregnancy. We set it up as a charitable
foundation. We ran it for a couple of years and then handed it over to another
company, which pays money to a health-care foundation. When we started we
wanted to give Durex some competition. It owned 90 percent of the condom
market in Britain and therefore had no incentive to advertise. We made a lot of
really good advertorials. We got the BBC to run them, and it never runs ads. The
funniest ad was a trip into a shop by a young man. He’s in front of this beautiful
girl who is serving him. He’s buying everything—tissues, anything he can think
of—but he doesn’t quite have the courage to ask for condoms. Finally she asks,
“Is there anything else, sir?” and he whispers back, “A package of Mates
condoms.” To the person who gets them for her, she yells out, “A package of
Mates condoms!” It was very funny. So Mates gave Durex some competition. It
has about 25 percent of the market now. It achieved what it set out to achieve.
Playboy: Of all the names for companies, why did you choose Virgin?
Branson: I was 15 and inexperienced in business. It has been quite an
appropriate name because we’re new to all the businesses we start: It’s always
Playboy: Have you been able to look back and understand what it is about your
personality that has led to your success as an entrepreneur?
Branson: I never aspired to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to be an editor. I started
Student magazine when I was 16 and became an entrepreneur by mistake. In
order to keep the magazine going, I had to worry about the printers, the paper
manufacturers and the advertising. I’ve never been interested in business or
making money. I’ve just been interested in doing things I can be proud of. Later I
didn’t go into the airline business to make money. I was fed up with the quality
of air travel on other people’s airlines and felt I could do it better. I started with
one 747.1 got the kind of people I enjoyed being with to work that airline and
created something we’re really proud of. Twenty-one years later that airline is
one of the most profitable in the world, and it’s become very valuable. But that is
only because we had a zest to create something special. As I said, if people
actually set out to make money per se in business, chances are they won’t be
successful. Ideally, I think people need to fulfill their dreams. Everything else
Playboy: Did something specific in your childhood lead to your business
Branson: My mother never let us watch people playing football; we had to be
out there playing football. When I was about six, we were on our way to my
grandparents’ house, and about three miles before we got there she pushed me
out of the car and told me to find my own way there. Which is something, you
know. I think people get arrested for doing that to their children today, I’m
afraid. They were very determined to make us stand on our own two feet and
prove what we were capable of. So I suspect that had something to do with it. I
was also dyslexic. I wasn’t great at schoolwork and sort of turned my attention to
other things, which ended up serving me.
Playboy: You were knighted. Did it mean a lot to you?
Branson: Twenty years before I was knighted I released the Sex Pistols’ “God
Save the Queen,” so when she brought the sword down over my head I wasn’t
sure whether she would be slicing it or tapping the sword gently on my shoulder.
Time mends, and I was forgiven for that, I suppose. It’s a very pleasant English
Playboy: When you retire, will your children take over the business?
Branson: My daughter is a doctor, so she probably won’t be joining me in the
business. My son’s quite keen on business. There’s always a possibility that one
day he’ll come in. We have a great team at Virgin, so if I get run over, the
company’s well set up to continue without me.
Playboy: You’re 58. Whether or not you live to see the Virgin Hotel in space, at
some point do you plan to step down from running Virgin?
Branson: I don’t think I would ever retire as long as I’m healthy and fit. I enjoy
what I’m doing too much and still have lots to achieve. To be perfectly honest, I
don’t feel any different today than I did when I was 24. Maybe I just try to make
a slightly bigger effort to keep fit and healthy, which I’m doing.
Playboy: How do you keep fit and healthy?
Branson: I like keeping fit, and I’m into extreme sports, things like kite surfing,
skiing, ballooning, surfing—any kind of sport. I play tennis. I relax by doing
mad things like starting new businesses.