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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.
| By Betsy Model | From Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007
The Virgin Knight

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.

There are stories of how the headmaster at Stowe School gave his blessing to a 16-year-old Richard Branson and his parents, for Richard to drop out of school—something he'd never done before with any other student—and predicting that Branson would either become a millionaire or go to prison.

Whether business peers or business foes, budding entrepreneurs who aspire to Branson's legendary success or employees who happily take pay cuts to come work on the Good Ship Virgin, everyone seems to have a favorite story about Richard Branson. Some are about failures, some are about successes or, in the case of one of Branson's personal favorites, it involves what at first appears to be failure but winds up being wildly successful.

Contrary to what Branson groupies might like to think—and they exist in vast droves, as any recent popularity poll in the United Kingdom will tell you—the British Virgin Islands are not named after the Virgin Group and the British billionaire who founded it.

Still, fairly early on in the success of Virgin Records, Branson found himself in the BVI with a beautiful woman—Joan Templeman, who would ultimately become his wife and partner of more than 30 years and with whom he'd have two children—with inexpensive romance on his mind. Intent on wooing Joan, but cash-poor due to continually reinvesting all of the fledgling company's profits into new businesses, Branson had accepted a gratis trip down to the Caribbean under the pretense of being interested in buying an island.

After a few days of enjoying the hospitality of the real estate marketing firm that had flown them in, Branson found himself on a completely unimproved island—one large lump of volcanic rock and neckerberry bushes inhabited only by geckos—where he climbed to the top of the hill and realized that, aside from flinging his arms wide and yelling into the wind, "I'm captain of the world," he could genuinely, in real life, be captain of his own domain.

The problem was that he had no money, at least not ready cash. Student, the magazine that he'd launched after dropping out of school, had been successful for a few years before Branson realized that the real money was in taking out mail-order ads (in his own publication, natch) for record albums. The neophyte retailer—cheekily dubbing the company Virgin Records after his vast breadth of knowledge of both retailing and the music scene—then began a small chain of record stores in 1970 and, not content with his place in the music industry food chain, leveraged everything he owned in 1972 to buy an old manor house outside of Oxford, which he turned into a recording studio. Over the next couple of years, Virgin Records managed to find a few small bands and artists to sign—Branson always smiles as he tells this part of the story—with names like Mike Oldfield, the Sex Pistols, Culture Club, Simple Minds, Phil Collins, Genesis, the Eurythmics, UB40, ZZ Top, Belinda Carlisle, Janet Jackson, Peter Gabriel and, years later, the Rolling Stones.

So, successful on paper but broke, Branson found himself captivated by the allure of owning his own island and, standing there in the Caribbean sun, he took an impulsive shot. The asking price for Necker Island was £3 million; Branson offered £150,000—a sum that he would have had trouble coming up with as it was—and after sheepishly upping the offer to £200,000 to the broker's continued disgust, he was summarily flown off the island, back to his luggage, and encouraged to return to wherever he came from.

A few months later, having contacted the British lord who actually owned Necker, Branson learned that the owner was in financial straits and needed to sell; a little haggling later, including a commitment to putting infrastructure on the island within a specific period of time, and Branson had struck a deal with the owner, closing the deal for £180,000.

Still doubt that pirates don't recognize treasure when they see it? Necker Island has, in the ensuing years—and with a hefty investment by Branson—become not only a personal getaway for the Branson family but one of the most exclusive playground destinations for the rich and famous. With a weekly rental rate of $275,000, which includes the lovely collection of Cuban, Dominican and Honduran cigars available at the bar, the success of the property—now the lynchpin of what was to become Virgin Limited, a collection of luxury resorts—has spawned additional sites, including Ulusaba, a private game reserve in South Africa, and a kasbah in Morocco known as Kasbah Tamadot.

As is often the case with a Branson story, there's a second punch line to this joke. It seems that when the real estate broker summarily dismissed Branson from Necker Island following his lowball offer, Branson was also left to find his own flight home. Thoroughly disgusted with trying to get a commercial flight, and observing many others feeling the same way at the island airport in Tortola, Branson had an idea. An idea, you might say, with wings.

Flying the Unfriendly Skies
When routinely asked by budding entrepreneurs or business students about the fastest, surest way to become a millionaire, Branson likes to quip back, "become a billionaire and then start an airline."

Actually, Branson's only partly joking; after all, his first foray into commercial aviation happened on a whim. Hiring a private jet to get him back to Puerto Rico after his Caribbean jaunt, he took the time to count the number of other pissed-off travelers at the gate. After some quick math, Branson borrowed a blackboard, turned to the other passengers and wrote "Virgin Airways. $39 Single Flights to Puerto Rico" on it, and filled the seats. In the back of Branson's mind, a light had gone on. He could build a better airline.

"Look, the airline business 21 years ago was dreadful, and in some countries," he laughs, "it's still dreadful. You had a piece of chicken dumped in your lap if you were lucky, the seats were uncomfortable, the stewardesses and stewards never smiled…they obviously weren't happy in their jobs and they weren't happy with the tools that they were given. I spent a lot of time on planes because I had a record company, so I rang Boeing and I said, 'My name's Richard Branson and I'd like to buy a secondhand 747.'"

Ultimately, Branson was to negotiate an even better deal with Boeing—a lease with a guaranteed return policy—but first, the person at the other end of the aviation giant's phone line had to figure out who the hell this upstart Brit was, calling out of the blue.

"They said, 'Who are you again? What did you say your company is called?' and I said, 'Virgin. Virgin Records. You know, the people who brought you the Sex Pistols.' To their credit," Branson continues, laughing, "they said, 'Look, we'll give you a go as long as, unlike your name, your airline's going to go the whole way.'"

Virgin Atlantic went airborne—literally—in 1984 and while "going the whole way" was certainly Branson's intention, starting out with a single, used 747 did nothing more than amuse the rival airlines serving London and New York at the time, including PSA and British Airways. Laker Air, the discount airline started by one of Branson's business idols, Sir Freddie Laker, had gone bust not long before and People's Express was soon to follow.

Virgin Atlantic began to gain notice from its rivals, though, when its sold-out flights and snappy, tongue-in-cheek marketing efforts began to eat into their sales. Normally boring, cookie-cutter transatlantic flights were suddenly fun again with the addition of sleeper chairs, fine cuisine and flight attendants hired for their smiles and sass appeal. By the time Virgin Atlantic began gaining creditability, additional planes and additional arrival gates—not to mention the media stories about in-flight neck massages and passengers having pajama parties at the stand-up bar in first class—one rival in particular, British Airways, had had enough.

In what was ultimately to become a case study for MBA students the world over on the subject of corporate dirty tricks, British Airways declared war on Virgin Atlantic. The battle played out in the international media, and, later, the courts: a David versus Goliath story that spawned numerous film documentaries and nonfiction books. Tales of how British Airways hacked into Virgin Atlantic's computer database, stole passenger data and either cancelled its flights or rerouted them to British Airways flights were told from one side, as rumors of Branson missteps and of how Virgin Atlantic, the underdog, was financially insolvent were told from the other.

Richard Branson as underdog? If so, not for long. Remember, it's always the smaller dogs that circle around to bite you in the arse.

As he began to lose customers on flights that had once been sold out, Branson doubled his efforts, dipping into the profits generated by other Virgin Group companies to cover the airline's losses. He also began digging in his heels.

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."

Branson's dream was to be the first private company to offer consumers the opportunity for space travel and, in typical Branson style, he sat down to figure out how to make that dream a reality.

"I set off around the world to meet every zany mad scientist I could find who was into rocket and space technology—there were incredible contraptions, and one day I should write a book about them—but then finally came across Burt Rutan. He's a genius…the best engineering genius and space genius and aviation genius in the world. Burt was just in the developing stage of building Spaceship One [so] we offered to build [it] with him and watch the dream of flying SpaceShipOne. And now, using that technology, we're now building SpaceShipTwo, which is quite a bit bigger, and a year from now it will be on its first test flight. And 18 months from now my children [and my wife and I] and my parents, God willing, will go up in the first flight and it will be the start of an exciting new era in space travel."

Branson's eyes gleam every time he talks of space travel, and his demeanor is far closer to that of a small boy with a new model airplane—or rocket ship—than that of most business tycoons discussing a new venture. Of course, to Branson it's as much adventure as venture.

"The initial flight will go about 70 miles into space," Branson continues, "so basically, you'll take off [and] you'll go up to 60,000 feet. You'll be attached under the mother ship, drop away [and then] you'll have the biggest rush of your life from naught to 3.5 thousand mph in 10 seconds. In space you'll unbuckle and through enormous big windows you'll be able to float around and look back at the Earth."

Whether they go up in the actual flights or not, New Mexico voters are pretty enthused about Branson's plans; they've just voted in favor of a $150 million bond that will pay for part of the space port construction already under way in the state's southern region. That the space port's location is less than 40 miles from Roswell, the little town that just celebrated the 60th anniversary of an (alleged) alien spacecraft landing, and which drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the globe for the anniversary festivities, isn't lost on Branson, and he chuckles at all the nicknames that immediately come to mind for his latest venture, names like Space Cadet, Space Cowboy, Space Monkey and Rocket Man.

On the other hand, in spite of the extraordinary investment required to launch the company—and the spaceships—Branson may, once again, be laughing all the way to the bank. With an estimated trip price of $200,000, more than 100 would-be passengers have already signed up and another 40,000 people have placed deposits on future trips. And Branson's already planning additional sources of revenue and business: launches of satellites, the build-out of small hotels in space ("with spas…zero gravity spas") and even the possibility of 30-minute commuter flights from New York to Australia.

When it's thrown back at him that he might just be creating the mother of all jet lag moments, Branson only smirks. "But it won't be jet lag," he counters, "it will be space lag! If we can just pop the spaceship up out of the Earth's atmosphere and straight back down again [then] the only problem will be the airports. You know, getting up to the gates!"

If much of Branson's enthusiasm for this next venture is visible—wide grins, hands slapping the table and his very nearly bouncing up and down in his chair as he describes some of the wilder possibilities—there's one aspect of Virgin Galactic that he's dead serious about: he's committed to making the flights as environmentally benign as possible.

"Did you know that the NASA spaceship uses up almost two weeks of New York's electricity supply when it goes up?" asks Branson. "Both our space flights and our satellite flights [will be] almost completely environmentally benign."

Branson only laughs when asked if a very, very large rubber band is involved, and instead begins talking seriously about his other two big passions at the moment: the environment and his commitment to finding alternatives to fossil fuel for transportation (including space transportation) and how environmental corporate responsibility is only part of what every company—and individual—should be doing for the good of the planet and its inhabitants. Especially those in developing countries.

Earlier this year, Branson shocked the world, including many of his business peers, with a public commitment to donate all the profits from his airline and rail interests for the next 10 years (an estimated $3 billion) toward finding alternative fuels and energy sources to curb global warming.

Much of the decision, Branson acknowledges, came about from an unexpected visit—an actual knocking at the door of his U.K. home—from Al Gore, who raised some uncomfortable questions. And, says Branson, some inconvenient truths.

"Al Gore came to England, he came to my house, said he wanted to see me and asked, Did I have a few hours for a long conversation? For the person that should have been president of America," Branson laughs, "I could find, you know, 10 hours.

"So he sits down, and this was before An Inconvenient Truth had come out, and he gives me a couple hours' lecture…told me about global warming. I knew, obviously, about global warming [in general terms], but he laid it out in a stark reality. At the end of the conversation he simply said that because I was well known, reportedly one of the best-known business leaders on a global basis, I could use myself to get out there, make a grand gesture and maybe get other people to follow."

Branson was sold, and the more he studied and the more he learned, he says, the more disappointed—and committed—he became to curbing global warming. Especially, he says, when it came to energizing the current White House administration to action.

"Europe is doing, I think, a lot better than America. I think the American people are getting it, but this administration has held things back for [seven] years. We desperately need leadership from America to tackle the problem and we need it quickly. Every year that goes by makes the problem worse. I think with good leadership, I think the business community is willing to participate."

Branson talked with other business leaders after his initial meeting with Gore and then he sat down to study. "When [Gore] left, I said I would think about what he'd had to say and see what I could do to help. And then the next three months I read a lot—a lot!—of books. I read Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers, I read all of James Lovelock's books: The Gaia Theory, and so on. And I got more and more worried about global warming."

Air travel, which contributes what experts estimate to be 2 to 3 percent of climate-changing carbon gases, is one of Branson's pet peeves…and pet projects. He's announced that, in a combined effort with Boeing and General Electric, Virgin Atlantic plans to fly at least one of its 747s using biofuel in 2008, a feat that most industry experts have said is at least 10 years off.

"I met with Ted Turner and he said he knew a group of fantastic people who are also concerned about global warming, and they gave me advice and information about alternative fuels and areas that we maybe should be looking at," explains Branson. "Then, about a week before the Clinton Initiative, I suddenly thought, 'Hang on a minute! I've got four airlines in different places in the world. I've got train companies. Why don't I make a really big gesture and just pledge 100 percent of the profits of these dirty industries over the next 10 years and invest, and try to come up with clean fuel?' You know, fuels that wouldn't damage the environment. Since then we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in ethanol and butanol and isobutanol and solar and wind power and others [sources], trying to find the fuel of the future."

Together, Gore and Branson made yet another announcement regarding financial commitments to reduce global warming; this time it was in the form of the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge, the largest science and technology prize ever offered. The contest, judged by some of the leading names in the science, space and environmental worlds, will be awarded to the individual or group that demonstrates a commercially viable design resulting in the net removal of atmospheric greenhouse gases, each year for 10 years, stabilizing the earth's climate.

If some are stunned—or skeptical—at Branson becoming such a knowledgeable and recognized voice on the complex issue of global warming in a relatively short period of time, compared to, say, some political leaders or entire administrations, Branson just shrugs.

"The way I start businesses is to immerse myself 100 percent for a few months. It's as if I've gone to college to learn everything there is to know about a particular industry, to listen and to learn."

Part of it, admits Branson, is his fascination with new things, but a lot of it has to do with the solid business sense he's brought to other aspects of his life. And, he says, part of it is also figuring out what you don't know and, through diligent research, figuring out who does.

"I've got [more than 200] businesses. If I have to pull away, I have to leave it up to chief executives to run it. So when they come to me and say, 'I really think that this is a breakthrough,' I can have a sensible conversation with them. If I just signed a check and said, 'Set up this business, just go ahead and set up' and, damn it, didn't realize the downside of corn-based ethanol in America or the fact that sugar-based ethanol in Brazil is six times more efficient than corn-based ethanol in America or that switch grass and willow trees could turn into cellulosic fuels…well, you get the picture!

"I think if you don't know the basics then you really shouldn't be going into an industry," he muses. "I'm sure good accountants can run businesses, but I think they're not going to be exceptional businesses. In our case, we're looking for the best scientists from all over the world…China, India, Australia, South Africa and America. Who's going to build the most efficient windmills? Who's going to come up with most advanced solar panels? Who's going to try to turn ethanol into cellulose ethanol [or] cellulose ethanol into butanol? Who's going to go from there to turn it into isobutanol? Who's going to come up [with] a fuel that's going to fly planes, and so on. I knew nothing about chemistry or physics or anything at school but I've learned, I've had a crash course in it and I think we've come across the best people in the world."

Branson, who was once quoted in his earliest years of business success as saying, "I believe in a benevolent dictatorship…as long as I'm the dictator!" has learned how to delegate and delegate well, and if an earlier comment about having managers prepared for "if I had to pull away" sounded casual, it's a subject that often comes up, directly or indirectly, with everyone from the business press and longtime investors to, one assumes, his family.

Inevitably over the last 20 years or so, Branson's PR pranks (such as water-skiing while being pulled by a blimp) and adventures involving high speeds, high altitudes or both (think boats, balloons and skydiving) have resulted in public and private contemplation about what would happen to a business conglomerate so thoroughly connected to its founder's personality should he…leave. Especially a founder who has, frequently, cheated death by the skin of his very white teeth. Branson hears the question so often it doesn't faze him in the slightest.

"Obviously, I do everything I can to try to avoid making mistakes, but I can sleep well at night if something goes wrong as long as I worked day and night to avoid it…I can then put it behind me and move onto the next thing. If I couldn't, I certainly wouldn't have this many companies! We've obviously made lots of mistakes…you try to learn from them and, fortunately, when it comes to ballooning and boating, they didn't cost me my life.

"It is impossible to run a business without taking risks," Branson says, "and Virgin would not be the company it is today if risks had not been taken. The very idea of entrepreneurship not only conjures up thoughts about starting up businesses and building them, but also the more frightening prospect of taking risks and failing. It's the last part that puts so many people off taking a leap into the unknown and working for themselves.

"Most importantly, management is about exactly what it says: 'managing.' To manage, you have to make decisions about people, events unfolding, and you usually have to spend money in order to make more. One of the sad realities of big business is that often people tend to forget the bit about making decisions, which is why so many large companies seem to suffer from inertia. One of the reasons that we run Virgin as a series of independent businesses is precisely to keep people focused on managing their individual companies and keep the decision process fluid. It's worked for us."

It's a good thing, too, because, as Branson will gladly tell you, he's got yet one more passion on his plate right now and it's occupying a significant part of his time. Perhaps, he says, as much as 50 percent of it.

Sharing the Spoils
For a business leader who made his reputation in part on wild publicity gimmicks and PR machinations that few entities, much less individuals, could pull off, Branson has been surprisingly quiet about a few particular projects that may raise some eyebrows in the near future.

One of the biggies is The Elders. Although at first glance the name may sound like one of the rock bands that Virgin Records was signing in the '70s, The Elders are, in fact, exactly what their name implies: a group of elders—in this case, some of the most recognized names on the planet—joined for a common purpose.

That purpose, suggests Branson, will almost always have to do with forging peace and relieving human suffering.

Conceived of by Branson and his good friend Peter Gabriel, The Elders are an assembly of 12 international leaders who were handpicked for their demonstrated abilities to negotiate and mediate conflicts, find solutions to issues of poverty and suffering and, most importantly, see "forest for the trees" solutions. Although all 12 names weren't confirmed at the time of this interview, Branson mentions a few—Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan and Muhammad Yunus—before explaining some of the project's critical ingredients, diplomacy being one of them.

It's diplomacy, says Branson, carefully, "…that makes a lot more sense than automatically assuming that military might is going to be the answer. Forgiveness is, I think, very important and the idea is that [The Elders] will look at issues in the world that individual governments are not looking at, that they can be a group of people that have no vested interest. Many of them are in the transition years of their life, their egos behind them.

"You know, Mandela is 89 years old, and his life has been exemplary. His forgiveness is extraordinary. After spending 27 years incarcerated in prison, he comes out of prison and he throws his arms around his captors. He welcomes them into his government and he forgives them. He sets up Truth and Reconciliation courts where, instead of people being prosecuted for the horrendous crimes they did to the black man, all they have to do is go along to these courts and say to the people who were the victims—if they're lucky enough to be alive, or the victim's families if they're not lucky enough to be alive—I'm sorry.' And there's another equally wonderful man, Archbishop Tutu. Through this incredible forgiveness and reconciliation, South Africa became a shining example to the rest of the world."

Branson spent a week in the United States recently, sounding out his peers on the subject of The Elders; $18 million was quickly raised and the organization now has initial funding.

Along with The Elders, other projects capturing the interest of Branson—and of Virgin Unite, the philanthropic arm of the Virgin Group—include a Centers for Disease Control-like agency, dubbed the "War Room," which will coordinate medical aid and relief efforts between governments, private parties and NGOs in South Africa; a fleet of hundreds of motorbikes, equipped to haul medical supplies to remote African villages; a program in New Orleans to benefit homeless youths; programs in education and economic sustainability for peasant farmers in Morocco [his mother's pet program]; and a recent series of "wake-up" trips scheduled with American business entrepreneurs, where the business executives travel with Branson to South African communities to serve as advisers and mentors at schools on entrepreneurship. Best of all, Branson grins, the trip attendees wind up at Ulusaba at the end of their week, enjoying a little luxury in the private reserve, cigars and fine whiskey in hand.

Asked if there's a dichotomy in spending a few days working to relieve poverty in a poor community through economic development followed by downtime at an exclusive resort, Branson shakes his head emphatically.

"No. I don't think people need to feel guilty about having a good holiday in a spectacular game reserve or a nice holiday in the Atlas Mountains. I don't think people need to suffer. They can have their holidays, they can have their pleasant homes; it's just what they shouldn't have is tons of money sitting in their bank account doing no good. They should utilize a decent percentage of their wealth…well, I believe that people will get more satisfaction in making a difference."

So it's perfectly OK for the same people he's encouraging to contribute time and money to issues like homelessness and the control of malaria and HIV/AIDS to spend $200,000 on, say, a quick trip into space on Virgin Galactic?

Branson just laughs and insists that everything will be waiting for them when they return safely to Earth, the implication being that any and all flights will be round-trip.

Well, hedges Branson, that is, unless you've got a mother-in-law problem. In that case, he offers, grinning, you'll pay the same price, but it'll be a one-way ticket, first-class, mileage-plan points not eligible.

Betsy Model is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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