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The Virgin Knight

Sir Richard Branson's new world order: save the planet, save its people and keep an eye on things from above. Way, way above.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

Centuries before there was a Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise or theme-park thrill ride, there were pirates, real pirates, raiding the British seaports of the Caribbean. The pirate captains and crews, much like the ships raiding and being raided, were a mix of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and French but, just as often, they were rebel Englishmen trying to get rich from one side of the gangplank or the other. • Nearly five hundred years later, there are still pirates among us—risk-taking men and women who have the innate ability to set course, change course and survive insurmountable storms—who come out the other side of each journey not only alive but fabulously wealthy and grinning like a shark. • There are few businessmen—or celebrities—who personify the word "pirate" better than Sir Richard Branson. At 57, he's the captain of a corporate ship that boasts well over 200 separate business entities and employs a crew of 50,000 around the globe, and he is, according to Forbes magazine's latest report on the world's wealthiest people, worth an estimated $3.8 billion.

That Branson spends an inordinate amount of time at sea—literally, not figuratively—is undeniable. On his second attempt to set the transatlantic speed record (he sank his boat the first time out, in 1985), Branson and his crew set a world record the following year, in the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II. And on six separate occasions, Branson's been plucked out of the sea by a rescue helicopter following unexpected, uh, aquatic landings while attempting to set records for crossing oceans or circling the globe via hot air balloon.

If there are some among his countrymen or business peers who would suggest that Branson's hot air isn't relegated solely to balloon flights across vast expanses of land and sea, the entrepreneurial rogue couldn't seem to care less. White teeth flashing in a tanned face, eyes crinkled by either too much staring into the sun or at profitability spreadsheets for business ventures as diverse as commercial aviation and condoms, mobile phones and "banks" that store umbilical cords, Branson is the kind of man who is known for pulling off elaborate stunts involving army tanks, belly dancers, parachutes or God knows what else, in the firm belief that no publicity is bad publicity.

He is a knight—again, literally, not figuratively—since being knighted by the Prince of Wales in 1999, and if he's most often seen by the public in loose, flowing open-necked shirts, hands on hips and arms akimbo, with long hair blowing in the wind, well, what more could you expect from a globe-trotting fortune builder and adventurer. He's a rascal. A buccaneer. A swashbuckling gambler.

Branson is also quite definitely an alpha male in spite of the time that he dressed up in complete bridal drag, gown and all, to promote the launch of Virgin Bride, his chain of U.K.-based bridal stores. Not since actor Johnny Depp embodied Captain Jack Sparrow (channeling Keith Richards) in Pirates of the Caribbean have we seen a man wearing more makeup alongside a five o'clock shadow.

The charming Branson can spin a tale when it suits him; his is a natural Pied Piper-meets-Tom Sawyer-like ability to get people to happily stop whatever they're doing to paint his fence. Chase his hot air balloons across three continents. Buy a ticket to space.

He's a dyslexic entrepreneur who can unerringly read people and proposals, a high school dropout who learned his lessons—magna cum laude—by building businesses and brands one at a time over 40 years, and an incorrigible jokester who truly believes the punch line to the very best joke he's ever heard is…life.

A modern-day pirate? You bet. Bloody hell, the guy's even got his own private Caribbean island.

A Virgin by any Other Name
Everyone, it seems, has a Richard Branson story. His father, Ted, likes to tell stories of how, as a toddler, Richard was already the leader of a gang of 2- , 3- and 4-year-olds who routinely got into whatever mischief their diaper-wearing captain dreamed up.

There are stories of how his mother, Eve, once pulled her car off to the side of the road while driving to her parents' country farm and, more than two miles from the final destination, told 6-year-old Ricky to get out, find the rest of his way, and she'd meet him there. She kept an eye on him, of course, and little Ricky managed to make his way to the next-door neighbor's house without incident.


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