Good King Richard

In the past year, Richard Branson has done everything except reinvent the limo. Oh, wait, he did that, too.

Nov 21, 2007
Outside Magazine
Richard Branson

Sam and his father check out the new Virgin America fleet    Photo: Danny Clinch

Richard Branson

Branson delivering motorcycles to a charity in Nairobi, Kenya

SIR RICHARD BRANSON has a hangover.

It's a sweltering Sunday morning in Baltimore, and Branson shambles in to meet me for breakfast in the tony Explorers Lounge of the InterContinental Harbor Court hotel. He says he tied one on last night after the Police show at the Virgin Festival, and now he's a bit worse for wear. As a morning tonic, he orders tea and nibbles on a wedge of dry toast.

"For the past several weeks I've been keeping to my island in the Caribbean, staying clean, no drinks," he says. "You know, swimming, kiteboarding, staying fit. But then you get an occasional...relapse." He pulls a scowl of mild self-reproach and adds, "I might have broken a few rules last night."

Branson is wearing jeans and a simple black T-shirt, his long strawberry-gray locks still wet from the shower. His eyes are bloodshot, and his famous toothy smile is not yet open for business. Right now he doesn't look much like the chairman of the Virgin Group, an international empire that consists of more than 200 companies and employs some 55,000 people across the blue planet. And yet, you have to hand it to him: The man seems astonishingly well preserved for a 57-year-old risk taker who has crashed balloons, survived shipwrecks, bailed from doomed aircraft, speedboated across the stormy Atlantic, partied for decades with lizard-skinned rock stars, and courted more permutations of harm than anyone but Evel Knievel could imagine.

Branson informs me that his son, Sam, a 22-year-old sometime model who is Virgin's heir apparent, will not be joining us for breakfast, as had originally been planned. It seems the young Branson attended the same bash and is now out of commission for much of the day. "He's a good lad," Branson says. "You'll like him—if he ever wakes up."

Now Branson gazes out the window, toward Baltimore's boat-filled harbor, with its celebrated aquarium, and tries to get his motor working. We talk for a while about his interest in low-orbital commercial aviation (New York to Australia in less than an hour!) and the privatization of the cosmos (Virgin hotels in space!). We talk about some of his friends—Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Peter Gabriel—and about the Arctic dogsled expedition he and Sam made this spring on Canada's Baffin Island. We talk about Branson's extraordinary life, extraordinary year, extraordinary week. (Just a few days ago, his newest corporate child, Virgin America, made its debut flight to San Francisco from New York.)

But it's simply too early in the morning. The Bransonian magic won't kick in; the fog refuses to lift.

Now he says the chauffeur is waiting outside to whisk us away to the Virgin Festival. Branson has invited me to tag along today as he does a semichoreographed dance of meetings, press conferences, and backstage photo ops surrounded by a sea of more than 74,000 sun-addled festivalgoers. The Virgin Festival is a sprawling, two-day rock concert set in the infield of Maryland's Pimlico Race Course, with three stages cranking out nonstop music from bands like Wu-Tang Clan, the Beastie Boys, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But it's also a kind of eco–big tent designed to showcase the Virgin Group's new green thinking. Branson has come here from his energy-efficient hideout on Necker Island in the (where else?) British Virgins to throw the weight of his persona behind the conglomerate's carbon-neutral message.

"I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to be doing today," Branson confesses. "But someone will point me in the right direction."

Even as he says this, two of his Bond-girl handlers (are there any unattractive people working for this company?) hover in the wings of the InterContinental's mezzanine, motioning for him to wrap up our breakfast. Hangover or no, the Branson Machine must get a move on. His chariot awaits.

But when we walk downstairs to the lobby, I'm a bit confused. There is no limousine, stretch or otherwise. No bodyguards or bouncers. No retinue of sycophants. I had secretly hoped we would be boarding a smoke-hazed tour bus with Ben Harper or the Smashing Pumpkins. I had imagined rolling hot tubs, dry martinis, and (if Sting happened to be on board) marathon orgies of tantric sex. But all I can see, parked out in the valet lot, is a staid, corporate-black Prius, idling in silence.

"Brilliant—that's our car," Branson says. "C'mon, let's make for the show."

And so we hop in—Branson in the passenger seat, me in the back with Holly Goodhead and Alotta Fagina—and the driver takes off through the traffic snarls of downtown Baltimore.

"God, I hate the sound of engines," Branson says. "All the fleet vehicles we use at the Virgin Festivals are either hybrids or flex-fuel cars— it's in our contract. These Toyotas are massively sexy, don't you think?"

On this 90-degree August day, riding through the wavy Chesapeake heat, no one recognizes the multibillionaire knight as he coasts on Japanese battery power toward his own personal rock concert.

SPORTSMAN, swashbuckler, aviation folk hero, and all-around bon vivant, Sir Richard Branson has, over the past year or so, broken into an altogether different level of celebrity—one that transcends business, transcends entertainment, transcends Jules Vernean endeavor. These days the Virgin Group founder and chairman is increasingly serious and increasingly preoccupied with doing something beneficent with all those billions. And in so doing, he has gradually entered the big leagues of global do-gooderism, a world occupied by a very few others—Gates, Clinton, Oprah, Carter, Bono.

Up until a few years ago, Branson had been entirely skeptical of the urgency surrounding climate change. And anyway, over much of the previous two decades, he had been pretty much consumed by his ambitious ventures to circumnavigate large swaths of the globe in balloons and other craft—while attempting to set, sometimes successfully, all manner of esoteric world records. ("My ballooning days are concluded," he now says. "They were magnificent, and they were miserable. But I love life—and I'd like to stay alive.")

Then, two years ago, Al Gore got Branson's wheels turning when he paid him a visit. "This was before An Inconvenient Truth," Branson recalls, "and when someone you respect is willing to fly halfway across the world just to see you, you take him very seriously. For three or four hours, while I just sat on the sofa, he gave me a personal, one-on-one lecture. He opened my eyes to a very disturbing picture of the world. Then I realized, We have a real problem on our hands."

Not the sort of man to mess around with half measures, Branson hurled himself into the cause with his usual full-throttle panache, devoting significant amounts of his personal wattage—and mounds of his own cash—to the task of saving the world.

Early this year, with Gore by his side, Branson announced the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25 million prize that will go to the first inventor who can develop a viable mechanism for scrubbing carbon gases from the atmosphere. He has pledged to reinvest all the profits from his transportation businesses over the next ten years into developing ecologically benign fuels—a commitment that could amount to more than $3 billion. Now the Virgin Group is venturing into all sorts of unexpected eco-preneurial areas, attempting to put the "massively sexy" Virgin spin on such worthy but often dreary fields as recycling, photovoltaics, battery technology, electric cars, and windmills. ("You know," Branson says with a smile, "windmills actually come in colors—they don't have to be white.") Branson even plans to go into green tourism; he's now building what he says will be the most advanced sustainable eco-resort in the world, on a Caribbean island next to his beloved Necker.

As commendable as all this sounds, skeptics have inevitably been asking: Is he doing this because he really cares, or is he doing it because he's found that environmentalism—or at least environmental talk—sells? Is the greening of Sir Richard Branson just another marketing stunt in the life of a world-class showman?

After all, Branson is, among many other things, the owner of an airline, one of the dirtiest enterprises there is. What's the harm in saying you care about the planet, even as your planes crisscross the firmament with contrails, burning through the ozone, sucking up lakes of fuel?

"We aren't doing this as a charity," he tells me. "We want to prove you can make money at it. It's all a wonderful challenge, and I love challenges. As the chairman of a company whose businesses contribute to global environmental problems, I felt I had a responsibility to address this head-on. We now have many, many people whose full-time job is thinking green, thinking carbon. We're aiming to develop an alternative fuel, alternative cars, alternative batteries—something entirely new that will shake the foundations of the petrol and coal companies. Because if we don't, the world could be doomed."

A FEW HOURS LATER, Branson is behind the wheel of a golf cart, tearing through the Virgin Festival crowd to make his appointment with a mermaid.

Well, not exactly a mermaid, but actress Daryl Hannah, who has flown in to help Virgin spread the green word. In ten minutes, Branson and Hannah are scheduled to share the spotlight at a press conference over at the Green Spot, Virgin's eco–demonstration venue on the far side of the Pimlico infield.

As we trundle along, two of his handlers are riding on the back, nervously eyeing their watches. Everything's on a tight, tight schedule, and the chairman has a tendency to stray. Branson is an endearingly terrible driver of the British madcap school. "Where's the brake on this blasted thing!" he says at one point before slamming, half deliberately, into a hay bale.

"You golf?" I ask.

"Badly," he says, now veering wildly to miss a patchouli cloud of hacky-sackers. "But my grandmother made a hole-in-one once—in her nineties. I think it's still a record in England for the oldest one ever made."

Branson is obviously having a great time buzzing around the infield, investigating the whole weird scene. There are performance artists twirling from enormous, bobbing cantilever contraptions. There's a skateboard park and a "philanthropy mall," with booths manned by GreenDimes and various charities. There are jugglers, magicians, beach balls bouncing through the acres of reefer fog as sweaty cyclists ferry people and supplies on rickshaws. Overhead, an airplane buzzes above the racetrack with one of those long, trailing signs, which reads, SAVE A HORSE, RIDE A VIRGIN.

"I get satisfaction from all this," Branson tells me. "Life should be fun. People take themselves way too seriously—businesspeople especially."

Gradually, fans start to recognize Branson. Cell-phone cameras wink. Pens are proffered for his autograph. He waves, flashes the considerable dentistry, and eventually hops out of the golf cart to shake hands. Now there is positively a stampede of well-wishers. "I hope you're all enjoying yourselves!" says the happy impresario of Richardstock.

I look back at the Bond girls, and they only roll their eyes. "He does this all the time," one says. "You can't stop it."

At their urging, he finally hops back on the golf cart and we pull up to the Virgin Green Spot just in time for the press conference. It's a cozy compound of bamboo-and-hemp-canvas yurts billowing in the breeze, with tangled vines, potted ferns, anda sculpture of Pegasus made of recycled materials. Throughout this little eco-tabernacle, there are numerous displays concerning such matters as compact fluorescent bulbs, junk-mail reduction, and the problem of phantom loads (even when turned off, your appliances, stereos, and computers are still pulling juice). The stylish displays appear mod, slick, even lascivious. EVERYONE HAS A GREEN SPOT, one poster reads. WHERE'S YOURS?

Daryl Hannah is over by the microphones, looking tastefully frumpish in her faded jeans, cowboy hat, and Converse All Stars, her platinum-blond hair skimming the small of her back. Branson joins her against a backdrop of diesel generators and solar-panel grids, and the cameras from the entertainment press click away. (Although Branson's
a committed family man, it seems to be part of the Virgin PR strategy to show the chairman cavorting with models and Hollywood beauties.)

Besides, Hannah has environmental bona fides. A well-known activist and biofuel crusader who runs a sustainable-solutions blog, Hannah tells the assembled journalists about how she spent an action-packed week on Necker Island with the Branson family. "It was Death Week—he tried to kill me over and over again," with kiteboarding and other sports. "If we can just keep him down here on the ground—he's always going up."

At this, Branson smiles coyly and presses his palms into a namaste.

Hannah acknowledges that huge rock shows like this are not exactly good for the earth, but, she insists, "this is a very, very, very clean festival." The generators, she notes, all run on B99 biodiesel fuel, the plates are made of sugarcane, the cups and utensils of corn. Everything is compostable, with recycling stations set up all over the dusty infield.

"But you better eat fast," Branson butts in with a laugh, "because these utensils melt in this heat. The good news is, if the concession lines grow too long, you can eat your fork!"

Branson hops on a stationary bike that's hooked up to a blender and in a few minutes pedals up a fresh, human-powered smoothie made from the super-healthy açai berry, harvested wild from the Brazilian rainforest. He hands Hannah the purplish concoction, but she shakes her head. So Branson takes a big gulp of the swill and cheerfully smacks his lips, his mustache gooped in purple.

AFTERWARDS, Branson takes me to the Virgin VIP section, a roped-off area with beefy bouncers patrolling the perimeter. Inside, the Virgin mood enhancers have created a perfect lounge environment, with Moroccan poster beds, roving burlesque performers in trippy animal costumes, and a half-dozen luxury tepees, each one appointed with kilims, modern Scandinavian furniture, and giant plasma screens showing live images from the main festival stage.

I strike up a conversation with a Virgin associate about Branson's son, Sam, who is now reputedly awake and waiting for me to interview him in one of the tepees. "It must be stressful being the son of Sir Richard Branson," I say. "I mean, those are some unique footsteps to follow in."

The Virgin employee looks at me like I'm crazy. "Stressful?" she answers. "I think you'll see Sam's handling the stress . . . just fine." As she says this, a dancer wearing platform heels and a purple rabbit suit hops by us.

Sure enough, I duck my head into one of the tepees and find what has to be the most relaxed billionaire's son alive, a handsome, blue-eyed slacker prince. Sam is lounging in a rattan chair, wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and multicolored Nikes. He has an impressive soul patch, and his blond hair is pleasantly haphazard. Well-mannered, respectful, and instantly likeable, he's said to be one of Britain's most eligible bachelors and is renowned in the UK for the $300,000 21st-birthday party his dad threw for him last year—a Mad Hatter– themed bash attended by Kate Moss, Bob Geldof, Prince William, and Paris Hilton, among others.

"What are you up to these days?" I ask. "College?"

"God, no!" he says, reminding me that his dad didn't finish high school. "I enrolled in the University of Westminster [in London] and left after three weeks. I couldn't see myself doing that."

Sam now keeps a flat in London, which he shares with some of his "mates." He plays guitar, surfs, travels, and nurses the adventuring gene. "I'll do it my own way, but I've definitely got the bug," he says. "I'm spending most of next month in the Masai Mara bush. And I've got a trip to Ellesmere Island planned for next year."

I ask him about his recent expedition on Baffin Island with his dad. (Arctic legend Will Steger, who led the three-week dogsled trek this past spring, told me how well Sam acquitted himself as a young explorer.)

"Yeah, that trip was brilliant," Sam says. "We sledded from one village to the next, interviewing the Inuit about their perspective on global warming for a documentary we're making. I'm working on a book about it, too, based on a journal I kept."

Outside the tent, I can see an Evil Monkey Man cartwheeling around the VIP compound. Daryl Hannah is there as well, along with hordes of thirsty roadies, techies, and rock stars too numerous to name. Sir Richard Branson stands in the middle of it all, laughing and buying the drinks—organic rum mojitos, all around! Everyone is smiling.

"This is quite a world your dad presides over," I say. "Are you interested in running all this someday?"

"After I've done my thing, I might want to get involved," Sam answers. "It's not a bad life."

LATER THAT DAY, in a tricked-out Virgin trailer parked behind the festival, Richard Branson sips Gatorade on an electric-blue couch and talks about the topic that really lights his eyes. Over the past year he has made it clear that Virgin will be a major player, possibly the major player, in the private conquest of space, and he's outlining his ideas for the ultimate untapped market. Even now, Branson says that rocket scientists are out in the Mojave Desert putting the finishing touches on a spaceship prototype designed by aviation legend Burt Rutan. Branson wants to be the first to offer well-heeled travelers the chance to experience the rarefied frisson of weightlessness, charging $200,000 a seat to slingshot passengers into low Earth orbit and glide them safely back down.

"With space," Branson says, "there are significant challenges ahead, enough for the next few generations at least. Our first goal, our immediate goal, is to build a reliable spacecraft that provides our customers with a guaranteed return ticket."

Right now, that is far from guaranteed. Earlier this summer, three employees were killed in an explosion while working on the SpaceShipTwo project at the lab in the Mojave Desert. "It was terrible," Branson says of the disaster, "but not a show-stopper. Our investigations suggest the problem was not in the design itself." The accident, in addition to the recent loss of his friend and fellow adventurer Steve Fossett, is yet another reminder that exploration of any kind involves serious risk. "I daresay we'll never see anyone like him again on this earth," Branson says of Fossett. "It's my greatest hope that in ten years' time he'll write me a lovely letter from some beautiful place in South America." Despite all this, the ever-sanguine Branson insists that Virgin Galactic will be unveiling its first viable spaceship sometime in the spring (and that the mother ship will be renamed The Spirit of Steve Fossett).

Of course, merely puncturing the thermosphere is only the beginning, Branson says. As with nearly all his businesses, he believes in jumping in now and asking questions later. "I like to keep a David-vs.-Goliath stance and shake up complacent, tired old industries," he says. Only in this case, the "industry" is NASA and other bloated, hidebound national space programs. In the not-too-distant future, Branson envisions private space stations, colonies on other planets, and—why not?—maybe even rock concerts on the moons of Jupiter.

"We're at the birth of an enormously exciting new era," Branson says. "Instead of being citizens of a country, we'll just be earthlings, with citizen-of-the-world passports."

And when the first Virgin Galactic voyager leaves the spaceport, Citizen Branson plans to be on board, with his fair-haired Sam beside him—going anywhere, as long as it's up.

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