Exclusive Interview – Richard Branson

With two feet firmly planted on the earth and a vision for the future, Richard Branson is revolutionizing the travel industry—and saving the planet to boot.


By Jesse Nash


“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.”


“I’m an airline owner; I would dearly like it to go away. It’s certainly inconvenient to me to acknowledge that global warming exists.”


Richard Branson isn’t the typical business mogul. With a net worth in excess of five billion dollars, he’s the most exciting and personable businessman since Steve Jobs back in the ‘80s. He has achieved what most young professionals only dream of: incredible wealth, fame, and acknowledgment, all the while still managing to have a good time. He has built Virgin into one of the world’s biggest brands and is actively shaping the future of travel. He’s brash—and he isn’t afraid to take risks.


Virgin Atlantic Airways is now the second largest British long haul international airline, but Branson has set his sites beyond conventional air travel. In 2004 he announced the signing of a deal under which a new space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, will license the technology behind Spaceship One to take paying passengers into suborbital space. His next venture with the Virgin group is Virgin Fuel, which is set to exploit the recent spike in fuel costs by offering a revolutionary, cheaper fuel for automobiles, and ultimately for aircraft as well.


On September 21, 2006, Richard Branson pledged to donate the profits of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains to research environmentally friendly fuels. The donation is estimated to be worth three billion dollars.


Why are issues like global warming now such a concern to businessmen and politicians, when the warning signs have been around for decades?


Good question. I read a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist a few years ago and it sent me down the wrong path. It’s really only been in the last two to three years that I’ve started reading books like The Weather Maker by Tim Flannery and meeting scientists, and I’ve realized how wrong one can be. How worryingly wrong one can be. Books like The Skeptical Environmentalist were quite pleasant. You started thinking, well, we’ve had nice Mediterranean summers and winters, and we’ll have a very pleasant life. That may well be the case, but the horrendous effects on the poorer countries is ghastly. And if global warming continues on its current path, it’s not just going to be Bangladesh that’s going to be affected. It’s going to be New York and many other places, as well. And then, ultimately, obviously we’re going to start losing species completely…Mankind itself is going to be threatened. So, anyway, I accepted this and accepted that I went down the wrong path.


What do you say to critics who think there is a lot of bandwagoning on this issue?


There is not one sensible scientist who is doubting that we have a global warming issue now. 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. I’m an airline owner; I would dearly like it to go away. [Laughs] It’s certainly inconvenient to me to acknowledge that global warming exists. If it didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it. And I wouldn’t have to invest a lot of money into an industry where, obviously, there are a lot of big risks in doing it. If we’re going to put three billion into a 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. Even if there wasn’t a hundred percent chance of global warming, even if there was just a twenty percent chance, and if that is ultimately going to destroy the world, then, my God, we’d be taking out insurance. I mean, if there was only a twenty percent chance of New York being hit by an earthquake and a potentially avoidable catastrophe in a few years time, I mean, every single person in New York would be working to avoid it. The big problem we’ve got with CO2 is that people can’t see it. It’s a bush fire getting brighter and brighter by the day, but people can’t see it.

If they can’t see it, it’s not tangible. It’s not real.


I think that’s the real problem…The only way to actually get people to take action is to come up with ideas that make people money. That’s always an effective way of getting people to take action. [Recently] we unveiled plans which could cut back CO2 emissions from the airline industry. Virgin Atlantic unveiled a new idea that would cut back CO2 emissions by twenty-five percent over the next few years. And if we can get the industry to work together as one, it will also save them a lot of money and put that money in their pockets. Basically, we have said, if all planes could be towed from their stand to the beginning of the runway by a tiny little tug that emits no CO2 emissions at all, and when they land to turn off their engines and be towed to the stand, that will save nearly two tons per roundtrip. That means you’re not carrying those two extra tons on the plane.


With increasing delays, do you think it’s a realistic idea to have the planes towed to and from the landing strip?

The New York Times had a very strong editorial backing our announcement. And I think we’re getting the momentum going. Yes, I think we can make it happen. There are a lot of other things that we announced. For example, air traffic control in Europe: About fifteen percent of fuel is burned up just through the inefficiency of having 35 different air traffic control companies that do not coordinate. We can save over twenty-five percent on fuel burning. It can also save the industry hundreds of millions of dollars on their bottom line. So, a lot of CO2 issues. If people think hard, they can help save the world and also line their pockets by saving money at the same time.


Will low cost air flights, and all flights in general, suffer if the carbon credit system is introduced?


I think what governments need to do is target planes that are flying where there is adequate, say, train service running on the same route. It’s not correct in this day and age for people to have the option of a plane if there is a train service. I think with the intercontinental flights where there is no other option, then the industry has just got to get more efficient planes, which Virgin Fuels will be doing. Try to develop a fuel that is a clean fuel. Governments should come down heavy on wasteful short haul flights when people could be going on a CO2 efficient train. I don’t see much point in governments coming down heavy on flights where there is no alternative but for people to fly.


A lot of people may not realize that their way of living is damaging the environment. Where do you put yourself in terms of extravagances?


Well, obviously it’s very important 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 and hydrogen storage capabilities so when we’ve got too much wind, we can store it. We’ll cut our CO2 emissions back dramatically. 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…Also, 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 one economy class passenger flying on a plane. And we actually think we might be able to get it to be completely benign by the time we start flying. So, again, if we move into this industry we need to make sure that anything we do is backed up with what we’re saying elsewhere. And 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.


Tell us about Virgin Galactic, the “spaceline” you’ve been developing. It seems that only celebrities and high profile people are signing up for this.


It’s actually all sorts of people. We’ve had 89-year-old grandmothers right through to Sam, my son, who is only 21. So you have a complete [age] range of people…We’ll then have 12 months extensive test flights into space before we then take the first passengers. I mean, I’ll be going with my parents and my children on the first flight.

Your book Screw It. Let’s Do It reveals experiences you’ve had that have helped you overcome obstacles. Can you give us an example of just how you overcame a serious problem in your personal life?


[Sighs] Well, I mean, generally myself, we lost our first child; she died a week after she was born. And, um, obviously that was particularly difficult for the mother. But, obviously, it’s not easy for either of you…Generally speaking, the way I overcome problems and disappointments is we just have fantastic people around us at Virgin…And we look for the best in each other. I’m a great believer in lavishing praise on people. We all flourish when we’re praised…That’s sort of the general philosophy at Virgin.


I’m curious about your moniker, “Sir Richard.” Do you ever use that to go places, or is it more for esthetic purposes?


I’ve never used it. Everybody just calls me Richard anyway…Americans quite like the Sir Richard bit. Occasionally, I’ll be in a restaurant and somebody will say “Sir Richard,” and I’ll think there’s a Shakespearian play taking place behind me. [Laughs] Larry King always gets it wrong. He says “Sir Branson.” It’s one of those things that people feel awkward about…Generally speaking, people do just call me Richard.


Do you realize the impact you’ve had on society and on the world as a whole?


Well, I know I’m in a position where I can achieve a lot. And I don’t want to waste that position. So I’m spending quite a lot of time on the charitable foundation side, and we think we can do a lot with that. There’s the public persona that can hopefully make a difference. Like with Al Gore and our announcement about clean fuel, we were hoping it would encourage other people to do it.


What are the qualities in a person that are important to you?


Just somebody who’s really good with people. Somebody who just genuinely cares about people. Somebody who’s a good listener. Somebody who’s not always pushing their ideas down the throats of others. Somebody who’s good with the cleaning lady in the laundry, the switchboard operator, not just the people at the top.


If there’s one thing that you’d like to be remembered for when you’re gone, what might that be?


[Laughs] I’ve got two great kids. I’ve always tried to bring up a great family. I don’t know. I’ve been a good dad, been a good husband. I’d like my company, Virgin, to be recognized as the most respected brand in the world. The best company to work for. And the other issues, like global warming, to solve that problem in my lifetime. 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.