The Virgin King
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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?
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.