The Man Himself: Richard Branson

Interview By Maranda Pleasant

Maranda Pleasant: What is it that inspires you the most?

Richard Branson: People. All kinds of people. We’ve got 60,000 people who work for Virgin and they’re inspirational. They are extraordinary people all over the world and I’m privileged to work with [them]. Through the right people focusing on the right things, we can, in time, get on top of a lot if not most of the problems of this world. And that’s what a number of us are trying to do.

MP: What is it that makes you come most alive?

RB: Being fit and healthy. There’s nothing like the endorphins from being fit, and the incredible endorphin rush that goes with that. It beats drugs, drink, and almost anything else I know. I live a very full-on life, but then when I come back to Necker [Necker Island, Branson’s private island], I try to recharge the batteries. All of us have just got to find that time to look after our bodies. That helps us make sure that our mind is sharp. I know that when I’m feeling great and really fit, I can get [in] three or four hours more of really productive work. Which is one of the reasons I sometimes sneak off. Because on Necker every night is a party, so I try to keep a balance.

MP: Do you have some sort of daily routine to keep your center?

RB: Things like kitesurfing, surfing, tennis, running. We also set ourselves family challenges. Climbing Mont Blanc and having to train for it; trying to kitesurf across the English Channel and then having to train for it; trying to break a transatlantic sailing record and then having to train for it. I think it’s quite great to set yourself a big challenge and then you’ve got another reason for keeping fit. As a family, we all ran the marathon about three years ago. It’s fantastic to have something like that to aim for.

MP: What is it that makes you feel most vulnerable in your life?

RB: I think the opposite of what we’ve just been talking about. And that is if family or friends are unwell or ill—it’s perhaps the only thing that really can make one feel vulnerable. I just sent a note to my wife saying, You’ve got to start taking an aspirin a day! Because a friend of ours yesterday had a heart attack. Apart from that, every aspect of life is magnificent and wonderful. It’s so important to keep fit and healthy.

MP: What is love to you?

RB: I’ve been very lucky. I come from a very close family. I’m also in a relationship that’s been really good. Lasted a long time. We’ve got wonderful kids from that relationship, and they’ve had the benefit of being together. It’s fantastic to have that sort of togetherness. It’s a rarity these days. Something you have to fight for a bit. If you’re lucky enough to have it work, I think it’s well worth striving for.

We’re just lucky. We have so many wonderful friends. We’re lucky to have a wonderful place like Necker, too, which is a pretty good magnet to draw all the friends and family together. One of the best decisions I ever made was when we found this derelict island in my twenties and nobody wanted it. We fell madly in love with it. It’s been a wonderful place to bring up the children, to share with friends, to sit in the hammock and come up with wonderful ideas and brainstorm with fascinating people from all over the world. A lot of our best ideas have come out of Necker.

MP: What does commitment mean to you?

RB: Commitment is not letting people down. That’s very important in life. If you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it. Just try never to let people down.

MP: What’s one of the best decisions you think you ever made? One of those life-defining choices or moments.

RB: I saw this island from a little helicopter. In the helicopter was Joan, who was the girl I was trying to persuade to come live with me. And there was the island. Being able to pull off the two in one trip was pretty spectacular. So I suspect that was definitely the best weekend of my life, a good one.

MP: What are some of the biggest issues facing us on the planet right now?

RB: I think there are a lot of issues. I think that an awful lot of them can be overcome with enough commitment from enough people. First of all, if you have conflicts, everything breaks down in society. Kids can’t go to school. Basic health can’t be looked after. Every aspect of society falls apart. We’ve all got to do everything we can to avoid conflicts. Conflicts often stem from a couple of leaders on both sides that are badly brought up. They’d rather go to war than compromise. And in business, you’re competing with other companies all the time, but you don’t end up going to war with each other. And just watching Israel bombarding Palestine and Palestine sending one or two little rockets over to Israel—it’s just too sad for words. In Syria, if [Bashar al-] Assad had just been a statesman and handed over the reigns in time, Syria would not be heading down the nightmare that it is today.

Global warming is another big area that we need to get on top of. [And] diseases in Africa, which we’re also working on and seeing if we can make a difference on. And there are lots of issues that governments seem to be blind about. We talked about drugs and the war on drugs has gone on for about forty-five, fifty years—and it’s been a complete failure. If you had a business that was failing so badly, you would change course. And it’s just incredible that governments continue along the same course.

One of the things that we’re doing through the Global Drug Commission is trying to campaign to get governments to change course and treat drugs as a health problem, not a criminal problem. I think if they could do that, we could soon get on top of the problem, as is happening in Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. [We] just need to try to get some of these horrendous Far Eastern countries, who lock people up for life or execute people. And [for] America to stop filling up their jails with people who’ve got drug problems.

I think on a positive note, I think the Global Drug Commission are beginning to get their message out. There is a mood to change. Hopefully, over the next four or five years, we can see some successes there. If in business you see a country like Portugal or Spain doing really well in a rival business, you’ll then adopt their ideas, and hopefully we can persuade governments to do the same.

With species protection, we’re involved in something called the Oceanic Elders, which are trying to work hard to protect species that are in peril. We’re having some success on the shark-finning but there’s a long way to go. Costa Rica just signed a law prohibiting the killing of sharks for the fins. Guatemala’s just done the same. The rest of the central region of America has followed suit.

Australia just brought in a blanket-ban as well. The Chinese have now started turning to Manta rays, and believe that there’s a little substance in the Manta ray that is good for medicinal purposes. Sadly, there’s a wholesale slaughter of Manta rays going on. That’s another battle that’s being fought. But the Ocean Elders hope to create more marine reserves. We just instigated an award for the top five countries in the world that look after their oceans the best, and the bottom five, as well, which we’ll present next March. That will give us some clout, a weapon to use with countries that are misbehaving.

On conflicts, generally speaking, the world is a hell of a lot better to live in today than it was thirty years ago, despite what’s going on in Syria. There are definitely hopeful signs that the world is moving, decade by decade, in the right direction. And it is fantastic that Algeria and Egypt and Libya have moved to democracy in the last three or four years.

Slowly but surely, there are hopeful signs. What’s happened in Myanmar, in Burma, is wonderful—the fact that the generals have started moving towards democracy there. It’s a wonderful country. The Elders are there to try to work on conflicts. They are twelve wonderful men and women who go into conflict regions and try to resolve conflicts and help other organizations that are trying to resolve conflicts. Often, if you can actually get in there quick enough, you can stop a major conflict [from] flaring up. In Kenya, Kofi Annan, Graça Machel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu—[they] went in there when a civil war was developing and got the president of Kenya and the leader of the opposition, knocked heads together, and things have been pretty peaceful ever since. There are some nasty, nasty incidents taking place in the world, but [it’s] much better than it used to be.

Carbon War Room is an organization that we set up to try to work with the eighteen most polluting industries, to see if we can actually work with them to get the eighteen gigatons of carbons the Earth needs to balance its books, without damaging the industries. Working with the airline industries trying to come up with clean fuels to power the planes. Working with the shipping industry, working with cities, working with the internet industry, etc. Sharing ideas. We’ve got a meeting of all the Caribbean heads of state here on Necker in about four months time, to talk about how we can work towards the Caribbean being carbon-neutral.