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Illustration of Virgin Group founder and philanthropist Richard Branson. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of Virgin Group founder and philanthropist Richard Branson. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Richard Branson: Swimming with sharks Add to ...

Prostitutes, junkies and shark fins are on Richard Branson’s mind.

On my mind is the Traditional English Breakfast at Roux at The Landau, in the Langham Hotel, the elegant, 19th-century pile across from the BBC headquarters in central London. At a mere £36 ($58), it offers a groaning heap of sausages, bacon and eggs, plus an assortment of toast and croissants, all apparently designed to turn your arteries into molten fat by the third mouthful.

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Mr. Branson – make that Sir Richard – opts for tea, and only tea, and I go into a panic. I cannot possibly gorge myself on the Great British Heart Stopper if he’s going to demurely sip tea like some old lady with blue hair. So I instantly switch gears and go for the sedate continental breakfast. “I’m actually full up, but I will pretend I am eating with you,” he says, explaining he had to have an early breakfast before receiving an inoculation for a trip to Madagascar.

Sir Richard is easily the best-known businessman in Britain and one of the best known in the world. He is the founder of Virgin Group, an eclectic collection of companies that range from Virgin Money, anchored by the former Northern Rock, the first bank to fail in the financial crisis (sorry Lehman Bros.), to Virgin Galactic, whose spaceships will take its first paying passengers into suborbital space in about 18 months.

The Virgin website lists more than 50 other companies that carry the ubiquitous red Virgin logo, the biggest of which is Virgin Atlantic, the long-haul carrier whose maiden Canadian service, to Vancouver, is on May 24.

Sir Richard himself is a brand, thanks to his relentless appetite for stunts, adventures and mischief. To wit: Some time in the next couple of weeks, he, his children Holly and Sam, and various relatives plan to kite surf across the English Channel. If it works, Sir Richard, at age 61, would set a record for the oldest kite surfer to do so.

Sir Richard calls it “kiting” and he won’t say where his group will start, for fear of arrest. “The French authorities say we can’t do it, so we can’t say yet where we’re leaving from or going to,” he explains. “It’s just some bureaucratic, overly safe thing.”

He loves adventures. But as he rages ungently toward senior citizen status, he just doesn’t want to be known as the billionaire madman who tried to fly around the world in a balloon or attempt the fastest Atlantic crossing in a speedboat (and had to be rescued when it capsized). Or the guy who made billions by exploiting the Virgin brand all over the planet. He wants to be known as socially conscious entrepreneur who is using his fortune to improve people’s lives and the environment.

Which brings us to the prostitutes, junkies and shark fins. He wants brothels to be legalized, licensed and taxed. He wants drug addicts to be treated as patients, not criminals. And he wants to see the end of barbarous practice of slicing the fins off sharks, and discarding the fish to die, for the sake of shark-fin soup, a delicacy in China.

His various philanthropic causes have come to dominate his life. He began pulling back from the day-to-day management of his vast array of companies about a decade ago.

“In the past, the most powerful people in society were in religion and members of government,” he says. “In the last 50 years, it’s swung to business people being the most powerful and therefore I think enormous responsibility goes with this. They might think they should just carry on and make money, but they can also use their entrepreneurial skills to sort out the world’s problems.”

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