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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

(continued from page 3)

Determined to save his airline and wanting British Airways to pay, Branson, the pirate, began returning cannon fire. He sued BA for libel and slander, accused the company of corporate misdeeds including espionage—which internal documents at BA proved—and, to fund both the airline and his court battle, sold his beloved Virgin Records to EMI in 1992. The difficult decision—and billion-dollar cash influx—was, in hindsight, the wise business choice. Virgin Atlantic was successful in the court battle, winning damages that were nearly equal to what had come in from selling the record company, and also wresting a public apology from the U.K.'s largest airline.

Just Lie Back and Think of England
"Screw it, let's do it" is a favorite saying of Branson's when it comes to business decisions, so much so that the man dubbed "Dr. Yes" by Virgin staff used it as the title of one his books on life lessons for the business world. Still, Branson acknowledges that launching an airline and fighting to ensure its survival against much bigger competitors was a major gamble in his professional life, although, frankly, not unlike some of the risks he's taken in his personal life. And some of these risks, he admits, grinning, were taken concurrently.

"Look, I love a challenge. And you know, there's an adventurous streak in us all and, I think, and in British people in particular. You look at the history of Britain…we got Scott [a distant relative of Branson's] to the Antarctic. We had Drake. We've got people who really like to sort of see what they're capable of and push, push the limits. And so if somebody comes along to me and says, 'I guess we could maybe wrest the Blue Riband [sailing trophy] off the Americans, who have held it for a number of years for crossing the Atlantic,' well, you know, we'll give it a go!"

The same rule applied, Branson says, when Swedish pilot and balloon designer Pers Lindstrom first approached him about funding the design of a balloon that would cross the ocean in jet streams that could reach up to 300 mph. Sure, said Branson, if he could fly along on the trip. Well, first, Branson admits, he asked Lindstrom what he thought was a deciding-factor question about the risks involved.

"I asked him if he was a father, if he had any children. He said yes, and he was obviously willing to do it. That was enough for me.'"

Branson pauses for a minute before continuing. "Now, the consequence of all that was that I've been pulled out of the sea six times by helicopters, and I remember before the first crossing of the Atlantic by boat, somebody said, 'What if the boat sinks? You've just started an airline. It's not going to look very good if you go [down at sea],'" Branson says with a sigh. "About three weeks later I was picked up by a banana boat out at sea heading back to Jamaica. My boat had sunk and I looked out to see the Virgin sign on the spit of the boat still sticking out of the water. The airline [Virgin Atlantic] put a full-page ad in [the paper] the next day," Branson laughs, "saying, 'Next time, Richard, there really is another way to cross the Atlantic.'"

Virgin Atlantic is now the second largest British long-haul airline and, not content with the skies over Britain, Virgin took over the country's two most run-down rail franchises in 1997, CrossCountry and the West Coast Main Line, and invested £2 billion in a fleet replacement program.

Since then, Branson has invested in other airline ventures around the globe, including Asia and Africa. In June, he launched Virgin Charter, an online bidding service for charter jet travel, and received FAA approval for Virgin America, a new U.S.-based airline that will offer discounted tickets to gateway cities throughout North America. That's big news for frequent business travelers, but it's the launching of an entirely different flight option that seems to garner Branson and the Virgin Group the most attention these days.

Some People Call Him the Space Cowboy…
In 1991, Branson registered the business name Virgin Galactic Airways in part, he says, because he simply liked the name and in part because he had a spacey little fantasy.

"I watched the moon landing [and] I was inspired by it," recalls Branson. "I assumed having seen the moon landing that I would be able to go into space in my lifetime—I was a teenager at the time—but, you know, decade by decade went by and NASA wasn't opening their doors to you and me. And so I thought, you know," Branson chuckles, "that NASA needed some competition."

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