I wrote the fun cover story on Sir Richard Branson in this month’s Zoomer magazine:

HE WORKS WITH SHARKS, PLAYS WITH LEMURS AND DREAMS IN ASTRONOMICAL PROPORTIONS. WHAT’S HIS NEXT MISSION? HELPING TO SAVE CANADA’S POLAR BEARS. HIS EMPIRE MAY BE WORTH BILLIONS, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO WORTHY CAUSES, HE KNOWS HOW TO MAKE EVERY DOLLAR – AND MOMENT – COUNT. BUT EVEN A RULER NEEDS A BREAK. AT SIR RICHARD BRANSON’S HOME ON NECKER ISLAND, HIS OWN PRIVATE IDYLL, WE CAUGHT UP WITH HIM HOLDING COURT. JUST DON’T CALL HIM SIR.

Text Ken Hegan  photography Bryan Adams

 

It’s Monday morning in the New Mexico desert. The sun is scorching. And of course, Sir Richard Branson is rappelling barefoot down the windows of a “space airport” to the beat of trippy futuristic dance music.

I’ve come to see if Branson is an evil madman or a benevolent billionaire genius. And I’m not alone. A crowd of 800-plus people has gathered, including the state’s governor, moonwalking astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a troop of security agents, the New Mexico National Guard and gaggles of cheering civilians.

As Branson walks backwards down the shining terminal windows, someone lowers a champagne bottle on a rope. Branson pops the cork and yells, “Yeaaaaaaaah!” as champagne spurts on his long, shiny, blond hair. He laughs and chugs, then hands the champagne to Lycra-clad acrobats spinning beside him.

Odd way to open a box in the desert – but Sir Richard Branson has always marched to a different drummer. And this is no ordinary airport.

Brazenly called Spaceport America, it was built by Branson’s new Virgin Galactic division. Its ambitious mission is to launch civilians into outer space via two spaceships called SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Virgin Galactic calls itself “the world’s first commercial spaceline” and, quite soon, the “world leader in sub-orbital commercial space tourism.”

“Today is another history-making day for Virgin Galactic,” said Sir Richard Branson. “We’ve never wavered in our commitment to the monumental task of pioneering safe, affordable and clean access to space.”

Yep, in the almost future, you’ll soar into space with Branson and hundreds of “future astronauts” … whenever technology catches up with Branson’s dream of civilians floating over our big blue marble. Meanwhile, it’s 11:50 a.m., and Branson is dribbling champagne on his silver-blond goatee. Because that’s what Branson does. He opens new Virgin businesses, floats in hot air balloons, kite-surfs across the ocean, races powerboats, swims with sharks, rappels down spaceports, gets smashed on bubbly and then throws his head back and laughs like a lady-killing musketeer.

But is he laughing with us or at us?
Let’s look at the evidence.

1. He’s the Ultimate 007 Nemesis
With his long locks, twinkly eyes and mischievous grin, he’s like a cackling Bond film supervillain. And he certainly lives like one. The Virgin titan and his wife, Joan, live in an isolated fortress on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands (no relation). When he’s not, say, plotting to hijack a Russian submarine – oh wait! He has his own sub, Virgin Oceanic, which pits him against that other cinematic villain or hero (depends who you talk to) James Cameron, to see who hits the bottom of the ocean first. It was Cameron, though Branson beamed a hearty congrats on Twitter. Still, Branson is always launching some new way to suck our money away. For example:

2. Suspiciously Perfect Timing
He wanted to get rich off music. So he opened Virgin Records in the ’70s, just in time to become the principal label for punk and new wave music. After working his arse off for 30 years, he now heads 200 companies in 30 countries.

3. His Island of Lemurs
Branson was deeply concerned about the plight of the endangered lemur (a primate with a pointy snout and long tail, found only in Madagascar). So he’s trying to import dozens of lemurs from foreign zoos to live on Moskito, one of his private islands in the Caribbean (the first batch arrived at Necker awaiting completion of the Moskito sanctuary). Now, I’m sure Moskito is a nice island, since he bought it for $19 million.
Branson told the New York Times, “We’re trying to look at all the species that are most in peril and trying to come up with imaginative ways to protect them.”

But it’s not just lemurs he loves, if you follow him on Twitter (as more than two million do), you’ll see his Tweets about flying a baby gorilla to Gabon for a conservation group or criticizing the King of Spain for hunting and killing an elephant or thanking Leonardo DiCaprio for his work on trying to end tiger poaching in India.

Gotta say though: if you fill a private island with an alien species, you come across like a dastardly cross of Dr. No and that animal-experimenting Dr. Moreau. Then again, Branson does want to do good. He is trying to save the animals, not attach laser beams to their heads and kill live humans for sport, like I would do. The man likes animals. And not just landlubbers either. Take as an example:

4. He Bathes With Sharks
Last year, Branson swam with 300 whale sharks near Cancun to show that … uh, actually I’m not sure what that proved. Maybe it just proves that Richard Branson is even more interesting than the Most Interesting Man in the World. And/or maybe he’s building a shark army to defeat 007 once and for all.

Wait. Scratch that. Just watched a heartbreaking video on Branson’s Virgin blog. In the video, he says he’s raising awareness of “the slaughter of these beautiful creatures due to shark fin soup.”

Apparently, 73 million sharks are slaughtered for their fins each year. But thanks to conservation efforts from organizations such as WildAid (more on them later) and Branson, shark fin soup has been banned in Toronto and six other Ontario cities, plus California, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon.

5. He Swims Nude on a Big Pile of Money
His childhood hero was Scrooge McDuck so whenever Branson has a free moment, he slips off his Musketeer cape and pants, then … okay, okay, none of this is true. Far as I know, he doesn’t swim naked in a vault of gold doubloons, like I would. Quite the opposite, actually.

Take his recent autobiography, Screw Business as Usual. It’s a manifesto in which he urges businesses to make money by saving the planet. Yep, though 62, his legacy could be his quest to make businesses profit by rescuing the planet from their worst corporate instincts.

“Business as usual isn’t working,” he writes. “Resources are being used up; the air, the sea, the land are all heavily polluted.”  So he says it’s time “to turn capitalism upside down – to shift our values from an exclusive focus on profit to also caring for people, communities, and the planet.”

He calls this new way of thinking “Capitalism 24902” because the Earth’s circumference is 24,902 miles. I can only presume that Branson got this measurement by riding two dolphins around the globe.

“Every single business person has the responsibility for taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village. I have been convinced that this is the way forward, if the planet as we know it, and life as we know it, is to survive,” he writes.

In addition to Virgin’s ecologically sensitive ventures, he touts the successes of clean, green companies like Finisterre, an Irish company that makes sustainable clothing. Another is Capricorn Investment Group, which invests in businesses dedicated to creating positive social change.

Which is all very sweet but …

6. Can an Airline CEO Save the Planet?
Will Virgin airplanes now be made from hemp? Will their engines now run on hugs and good intentions? And how, exactly, will he save Earth by burning all that jet fuel needed to send astronauts into space?

In his book, Branson proudly describes founding the Carbon War Room. He invited the world’s brightest minds to brainstorm how to stop global warming, help cities construct green, heat-saving buildings and teach shipping companies to reduce their fuel consumption.

But, ironically, he hosted the early Carbon War Room meetings at his home in the British Virgin Islands. Which, last I checked, requires his guests to burn carbon fuels by flying jets into the Caribbean.

It’s like in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth when Al Gore flew around the world and rode in limousines while prepping a PowerPoint presentation on how we’re killing our planet with pollution caused by flying around the world and riding in limousines to give PowerPoint presentations on how we’re killing our planet.

Now, I don’t mean to be a nitpicking jackass. Clearly, Branson thinks his heart is in the right place. I’m just
curious about the Catch-22 when big businesses that are consumptive entities, teach us how to be green, when the best thing we can do for the planet right now is for us all to go extinct.

Too cynical? I’m happy to be proved wrong. To learn more about the man’s causes, Zoomer met Branson in Toronto. He came to promote his Virgin Unite charity called WildAid, a conservation group that aims to stop human threats to wildlife like polar bears.

Based in San Francisco where polar bears roam safe and free [Note to self: fact-check this before publishing], WildAid’s slogan is “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”

Their ad campaigns, which include celebrities like Harrison Ford, Jackie Chan and Branson, target the illegal trade of ivory, rhino horns and shark fins. WildAid brought Branson to Toronto to help get Ontario government support for a Polar Bear Protection Act to protect the 1,000 polar bears in Ontario.

“The majestic and powerful polar bear is an iconic symbol of Canada around the world,” Branson said.  “With their habitat increasingly threatened and their very survival in jeopardy, now is the time for action. We owe it to the next generation to ensure that these magnificent animals will live on in the Canadian north.”

Zoomer: I hear you almost kissed a polar bear.
Branson: We were on a dog-sled trip up in the north of Canada and we came across polar bears out in the wild. It was just magnificent to see them out in the territory they’ve been in for thousands of years, their natural setting. You have to obviously respect them because I’m sure if they walked into your tent at nighttime, you’d be a tasty morsel!

Zoomer: I guess if you tangled with a polar bear, you wouldn’t be the winner.
Branson: They are slightly bigger than us. We’re one of the only animals in the world that don’t really think of ourselves as animals but we are also animals and we must respect our fellow animals.

Zoomer: Why should people get involved with your Canadian charities?
Branson: It’s important to give back and make positive changes that are about more than the bottom line. I spend most of my time now with Virgin Unite, which connects great people and great ideas to help build a better world.

We’re also working with Virgin Mobile Canada in the fight against youth homelessness through a program called the RE*Generation. It’s ridiculous that in a country as privileged as Canada, there are 65,000 youth who don’t have a place to call home each night, and something needs to be done to end that.

Zoomer: You’re charging more than 500 “future astronauts” $200,000 each for the chance to have “the ultimate space flight experience.” What will the Virgin astronauts be feeling as they board the spacecraft for the inaugural flight?
Branson: They’ll be thrilled to embark on the ride of their lives and proud to be pioneers of what will hopefully be as commonplace as flying to another continent.

Zoomer:Your opinion is that the war on drugs has failed and you recently participated in an online debate on the issue. For those of us who missed it, please finish this question: “If we stopped the war on drugs, _______________________.”
Branson: … we would save hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, we would take care of people with drug problems, not treat them like criminals, and we would stop senselessly locking up people who would otherwise lead productive lives.

As I read back the transcript, I realized I rather liked Branson personally. Which is perhaps a big reason why his ventures are so successful. Is there any other CEO anywhere in the world who is so damned charismatic as Our Man Richard?

Who else could pull off his out-of-this-world space venture? The man is so charming, he’s sweet-talked hundreds of “future astronauts” (including film director Bryan Singer, F1 driver Rubens Barrichello and actors Victoria Principal and Ashton Kutcher) into paying $200,000 each to fly into outer space … for a 2.5-hour round trip!

But is this all just an elaborate scheme to “punk” Ashton Kutcher? I kinda hope so.

Though these “future astronauts” have all shelled out a $20,000 deposit, the technology’s not quite ready. So they must wait for their Great Leader to fly them into suborbital space. A couple of times a year, they gather at Virgin socials (not to be confused with “virgin socials” you find at Star Trek conventions) where they talk about how cool it will be when The Great Day Finally Comes.

If that sounds like a cult, I suppose it is. Branson’s enthusiasm for launching exciting new business ventures is certainly addictive. Just one look at the man glugging champagne for lunch and I wanted to shave off all my hair, sell all my possessions and follow Branson to the ends of the Earth (but I’m already bald so I’m covered).

And why not? He knows the planet well, having conquered most of it. His corporate holdings include airlines, record companies, health clubs, mobile phone networks, financial services, Virgin Green Fund, Virgin Health Bank (which invests in stem cell research), Virgin Cola, Virgin Management, Virgin Trains and Virgin Holidays. So why not conquer space?

And as for his ecological preaching, let’s face it: what good things do I do all day? Do I help save homeless kids from predators? Do I save polar bears from drowning because humans are melting their Arctic ice pack?

Nope. I just play hockey, drink beer and make out with my girlfriend. Compared to Sir Richard Branson, I’m a selfish jerk.

As Branson says at the end of his book, “Don’t forget: never accept the unacceptable … now we just need to get on with it and make it happen – quickly! Can you imagine what a different world we will live in when businesses do what’s right for communities and the environment in everything they do?”

It’s an ambitious goal. I hope it works. I hope millions of entrepreneurs adopt his Capitalism 24902 plan and save our planet before we’re all horribly doomed.

And here’s a hypothetical situation … what if Sir Richard actually could rescue us all but dies of old age or a tragic champagne-rappelling accident before he can save humanity from itself?

Knowing that he’s capable of doing so much more to help our planet, wouldn’t it be tempting for Branson to buy more time to help us all live? I needed to know. So I badgered his assistant this one last question.

“Richard, I’m certain you have 1,000 scientists working on new inventions for you around the clock,” I wrote. “If one of the scientists discovered a way for you to LIVE FOREVER … would you keep it for yourself or would you release it to the public?”

He didn’t answer. Which clearly kinda maybe proves the existence of those hardworking 1,000 scientists. Right?

Hmmm. I guess we’ll just have to wait until that fine distant day when Branson launches a new company called Virgin Immortal.

— Ken Hegan

 

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