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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.”

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.

Portugal is the drug-control model he likes. “In the last 10 years, they have not sent one person to prison for taking drugs and HIV infections have dropped by 50 per cent. They give out clean needles, they build treatment centres, marijuana use among young people has declined and society has saved a lot of money,” he says.

He hopes that, at minimum, marijuana sales can be legalized and taxed, producing a potentially lavish income stream that could fund social programs, such as building treatment centres for the users of hard drugs. When I tell him I find it impossible to imagine that the United States would ever replicate the Portuguese model, he sighs, as if in agreement.

He hasn’t lost his sense of mischief, in spite of his effort to become the Saint Richard Among Billionaires. He recently launched Virgin Volcanic, complete with elaborate Web pages, which promised the capability “of plunging three people into the molten lava core of an active volcano.”

An embarrassing number of media outlets failed to notice the April 1 release date. “I still am getting requests for interviews from all over the world,” he says with a chuckle.

CURRICULUM VITAE

Beginnings

Born in Blackheath, London, in 1950.

At age 16, launches his first business, Student magazine, to protest the Vietnam War.

Career

Music, through Virgin Records, dominates the first 20 years of his career. Artists include the Sex Pistols, Boy George, Mike Oldfield, Steve Winwood, Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones.

Personal

Has written four books on his career and business philosophy, the newest being Screw Business as Usual, which, according to the author, urges businesses “to switch from a just profit focus, to caring for people, communities and the planet.”

Has 2.1 million Twitter followers.

Owns the 74-acre Necker Island, his British Virgin Islands home and resort. Bought in 1979 for a mere £165,000, mainly to impress a girl, Joan Templeman, who would become his wife.

Hobbies

Kite surfing and all things dangerous, from deep sea exploration to diving with sharks.

Loves tennis, skiing and sailing.

Next chapter

Plans to be among the first six passengers, with his two children, next year on maiden space flight of Virgin Galactic.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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