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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 ...

I have interviewed Sir Richard a few times in the past 15 years, though not recently, and I was surprised how well he has aged, to the extent that I wonder whether he’s zapping Botox into his forehead (being Canadian, I am too polite to ask). His hair is still long and blond to the point of being white, and he sports his familiar goatee. He could pass for an aging surf bum, a description he wouldn’t mind.

His uniform hardly varies. He arrives at the Langham Hotel wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans and a pressed blue shirt, with subtle yellow stripes, that is unbuttoned almost halfway down his chest. The shirt cuffs are also unbuttoned. The only hint of wealth is his Bulova Accutron watch.

For someone who courts publicity, turning the media into a zero-cost marketing tool like no other executive, Sir Richard is surprisingly awkward in public. At the breakfast table, he almost never makes eye-to-eye contact with me. He tends to burble on, saying “um” and “you know” a lot. But he doesn’t duck questions and is polite, gracious and quick with a smile. At one point he asks me about my kids and their sporting life and seems genuinely interested in the answers.

A serial entrepreneur since he was a teenager, Sir Richard spent the first 30 or so years of his career building hundreds of companies. But being a red-blooded, shareholder-take-all capitalist was never his driving force. Take the youth culture magazine, called Student, which he launched in 1968, when he was 16.

“Right from day one, I never thought of myself as a businessman,” he says. “The magazine was actually set up to campaign against the Vietnam War. Yes, I had to sell ads and worry about distribution, but what fascinated me was the fun of marching on the American embassy with Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave.”

The highlights of his career are the stuff of legend, at least in Britain. In the 1970s, with the launch of Virgin Records, he signed the Sex Pistols. Courting what he calls the “pink pound,” he bought Heaven, bringing the gay club scene into mainstream culture. In the next decade, Virgin Atlantic took flight. The upstart airline (now 49-per-cent owned by Singapore Airlines) almost collapsed in 1992, only to be saved by the sale of his beloved Virgin Records to Thorn EMI. Virgin Trains and Virgin Mobile came on in the 1990s, as did his knighthood.

Since 2000 or so, the Virgin empire has expanded greatly in mobile communications, health clubs, regional airlines and the retail end of banking, culminating in the purchase of the nationalized Northern Rock bank in a sweetheart deal that left much of the dud assets with the government. But before you think that Sir Richard is a brand genius, consider that dozens of companies have quietly disappeared from the Virgin cluster, including Virgin Cars, Cola, Brides and Digital, as did Virgin Express, a European airline.

But the powerful Virgin and Branson brands remain largely intact and are being used to promote his philanthropies. Protection of species is a biggie for his charitable foundation, Virgin Unite, which is backing legislation in Ontario to protect polar bears. The save-the-sharks campaign, which is casting Sir Richard as something akin to a global David Suzuki, was inspired by Sharkwater, an award-winning 2007 documentary made by Toronto film producer Rob Stewart.

Sir Richard sponsors a group called the Elders in the name of peaceful conflict resolution in messy parts of the planet, including North Korea, South Sudan and the Palestinian territories. Its members, some of whom are Nobel laureates, include Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Gro Harlem Brundtland. Sir Richard is also a founding member of the Ocean Elders, whose goal is to protect the seas.

He seems most excited about the war on drugs and how it is backfiring spectacularly, amid headlines about beheaded bodies in Mexico. “Look at all the horrors going on in the name of stopping drugs going into America,” he says.

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