Take a moment and Google the words “billionaire,” “environmentalist” and “humanitarian” in a single search. It’s OK – I’ll wait. What was the first thing to come up? I got Richard Branson; not too many names come up after that. Indeed, the billionaire/environmentalist/humanitarian club is restricted to a small group – generally, you can’t amass a billion-dollar fortune by giving it away. Although we’ve recently seen many industry kings like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates pledge to give away their vast fortunes for the greater good, there are still few mega-rich individuals who want to use their resources to truly make the world a better place. Branson is one of those few excessively wealthy individuals who isn’t afraid to step into the spotlight, admit his businesses can often be environmentally harmful, and choose to make eco-conscious changes to alleviate those vices – and always with a smile.
The eldest of four siblings, Branson was born in the suburban area of Blackheath in London, England in 1950. His father was a successful barrister and his grandfather was the Right Honourable Sir George Arthur Harwin Branson – a judge of the High Court of Justice and a Privy Councillor. With such a prestigious history, success was in Branson’s blood. Unfortunately, so was dyslexia. This learning disability was the root of Branson’s academic suffering and the reason he dropped out of school at 15. “With adversity comes opportunity,” explains Branson. “Since I left school, I can see things, perhaps, more clearly than other people who have it. But, the truth is, I still have to try and make a real effort to see things clearly.”
It might seem shocking to see a dyslexic high school dropout achieve such soaring levels of success, but Branson is simply walking the path of many other famous, historical and influential icons who suffered from learning disabilities. Individuals like John Lennon, Tom Cruise, Winston Churchill and even Pablo Picasso were affected by learning disabilities. But calling Branson’s dyslexia a “disability” might be the wrong word when you’re net worth is around US$4 billion and you’re 212th on Forbes’ list of billionaires for 2010.
Never hindered by setbacks and moving forward with a smile, Branson started his first venture, Student Magazine in 1968, after dropping out of school. Two years later, he started printing ads in Student for his mail-order delivery of discount records. Branson’s little magazine was quickly flooded with orders for cheap music, but when a postal strike threatened his business in 1971, he decided to take the next step and open a record store. Virgin Records was born. A year later, Branson opened his own music studio and officially launched the Virgin record label in 1973. This prestigious label was responsible for signing many influential bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones and Culture Club, sequentially launching Branson towards the peak of rock ’n’ roll greatness.
Over the years, Branson has grown and diversified his once-tiny business into the massive Virgin Group Ltd. conglomerate. Today, Virgin’s umbrella houses more than 400 companies, all in various markets, and is a globally recognized brand. Branson has spread his wings and tasted the assorted fruits of numerous industries. He’s transitioned from music (Virgin Records), to airlines (Virgin Atlantic Airways), to mobile phones (Virgin Mobile), to trains (Virgin Trains) and beyond; his seemingly never-ending list of business endeavours rolls on. These monumental entrepreneurial undertakings earned Branson the honour of being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999, garnishing upon him the title of “Sir.” However, he still prefers to go by Richard.
By whetting his foot into many pools, Branson has created an industrial goliath with the tools and resources to handle any problematic shifts the sporadic economic climate can muster. “Look at the companies in the world. Coca Cola specializes in soft drinks. Microsoft specializes in computers. Apple specializes in iPods, whatever. By not just doing a one-product brand, a), it’s been a lot more fun and b), we’ve learned to handle a lot more from it, but c), when someone comes and attacks one of our industries that we’re in, we’ve been more prepared,” says Branson.
This saturation of the Virgin brand has created complementing companies that support and supplement each other if one is in need. “The thinking here is if people are spending a lot more money on mobile phones than buying music suddenly – well, we’re in the mobile phone business,” says Branson. “If fuel prices go up, and our airlines are suffering, well, we don’t mind because we’re producing lots of clean fuel which will compensate. Which will ultimately balance the books. So diversification, I don’t believe, was a foolish move. And, almost definitely, saved the company on a number of occasions.” While he may not be faithful in his entrepreneurial conquests, Branson enjoys a successfully monogamous relationship with his wife, Joan Templeman. They share two children, Holly and Sam.
Although Branson is an accomplished entrepreneur and industrialist, he is not oblivious to the environmental problems his business ventures create. “I’ve got four or five different airlines and therefore, I’ve got the responsibility to do something about it.” At heart, Branson is an environmentalist and humanitarian who is concerned with the dangerous path humanity so carelessly walks on. “I don’t think that if you go through every single scientist’s report over the last three years, there is not one sensible scientist who is doubting that we have a global warming issue now,” says Branson. “What’s worrying is you still get articles saying that there are some skeptics out there, but the skeptics are all most invariably the oil companies or the coal companies. There is no rational person who has got a question mark on it.”
Recognizing the harm his various businesses create, Branson bemoans the “inconvenience” of global warming, but understands it is something that needs to be dealt with. In 2006, Branson pledged to donate the profits from Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains into research for environmentally friendly fuels – a donation estimated at $3 billion. “I’m an airline owner. I would dearly like it to go away [laughs]. It is certainly inconvenient to me to acknowledge that global warming exists,” explains Branson. “If we’re going to put $3 billion into clean fuel industry, and if conventional fuel budgets collapse, it’s going to cost us a lot of money. But it’s something I feel we should do. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
To further his eco-minded movement, Branson recognizes that if you’re going to battle to save the environment you better practise what you preach. “Well, obviously it’s very important that if you’re campaigning about something that you’ve got your own house in order. I mean, at the moment, we have this small island in the Caribbean [Necker Island] and I’m trying to make it an example as the most environmentally friendly place in the world. We are building windmills… we’re building hydrogen storage capabilities, so when we’ve got too much wind, we can store it.”
It’s Branson’s aspiration that this kind of eco-conscious thinking will spread throughout the Caribbean. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to use what we’re doing on Necker Island to encourage the rest of the Caribbean that’ve got good wind to follow suit and do the same thing.” Furthermore, Branson has also initiated the Virgin Green Fund – an independent private equity firm that invests in companies dedicated to creating environmentally conscious products, equipment and services.
While Branson makes several big strides on the environmental front, he has been criticized for the large, hypocritical carbon footprint his multi-billion dollar air and rail companies leave behind. Further fuel was added to the fire when Branson announced the start of his space-tourism business, Virgin Galactic. However, through Virgin’s investment in clean fuels, Branson notes, “in developing space travel, NASA’s spaceship uses up two weeks of all of New York’s electricity supply every time it sends a shuttle into space. We’ve managed to get our Virgin Space fuel as such that we’ll be able to send somebody into space at the moment for less than the CO2 burned off [for] one economy class passenger flying on a plane. I think some of the technology we’re developing on the space tourism front will be very useful for bringing much more fuel-efficient planes to normal air travel as well.”
With his vision set to the stars, Branson’s Virgin Galactic is currently taking reservations for two-hour suborbital space tours. Passengers will experience four-to-five minutes of weightlessness, floating in the zero gravity of space, sharing a spectacular view of Earth. Seats are priced at $200,000, which also includes three days of training for each customer. Many tickets have already been sold, and Branson plans on taking his family on the first flight, so you’ll have to wait in line. More ambitious flights will eventually see future passengers visit the International Space Station. Test flights are currently being conducted for this thrillingly ambitious adventure, and although Virgin Galactic is hoping to start space tours in 2012, no official starting date has been set.
Although his future waits in orbit, Branson doesn’t forget about his comrades on Earth. With his friend, musician Peter Gabriel, Branson desired to not only improve the future of our planet’s environment, but to also strive to eliminate violent and bloody conflict. To fulfill this desire, Branson founded The Elders, an independent group that offers “collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity,” reads its website. This group of esteemed dignitaries was brought together by Nelson Mandela, and includes the likes of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ela Bhatt (founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India) and Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland. “The world needs people that they can look up to who’ve got high moral authority. Perhaps the person who symbolizes that the most is Nelson Mandela. So Peter and I asked [Mandela] and his wife, Graça Machel, if they would be the founding Elders,” explains Branson. “And then [Mandela] chose the 12 people he feels are the most respected 12 people in the world … to try to tackle some of the major problems of the world. Areas that we are going to look at are areas where we can stop conflicts before they become conflicts, to also try and stop conflicts that have become conflicts.” Recently, The Elders have been working in Cyprus to encourage peace between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and speaking with Sudanese officials to avoid violence during Sudan’s recent vote for a referendum. Currently, The Elders have been extremely vocal regarding the violent revolt in Libya, beckoning the
international community to put pressure on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to relinquish his power. There is no question: Branson has created a monumental empire encompassing a diverse range of businesses and organizations. He may sit atop a mighty throne, but Branson still wishes to use his royal powers for the forces of good. “I know I’m in a position where I can achieve a lot and I don’t want to waste that position I find myself in.” In order to not squander the power he wields, Branson chooses to spend time with charities and foundations that look to improve both the environment and humanity. “With Al Gore and our announcement about clean fuel, we were hoping it would encourage other people to do it. Yes, I find myself, not in a unique position, but in a strong position to do a lot of good and I don’t want to waste the position I find
At the end of the day, this golden-haired philanthropist is a man of extravagant wealth but simple pleasures. He loves to read, to learn, enjoys the thrill of kite surfing, loves to smile and laugh and always looks for the best in people. He simply desires that Virgin be an internationally respected name that plays a hand in solving global issues. “It would be wonderful if a number of people could join together to help avert a crisis – and I’d like to play my part on that one – but we’ll see. Helping to solve that would make me proud. But only time will tell.”
With his fortune expanding at a seemingly endless rate, Branson could have taken the easy way out and simply basked in the wealth and glory of the Virgin colossus he so ambitiously created. Instead, he works with The Elders, helping to push peace in war-torn regions around the world; pours profits from his transportation businesses into clean fuels and energy sources and invests in eco-conscious companies that develop green technologies. He doesn’t complain about the inconvenience of global warming. He just smiles and looks for solutions – and has fun doing so.