Rocket Man

Richard Branson is an interesting cat. Not your typical buttoned-up billionaire.

The stretch white SUV limo outside the Virgin Group's Bleecker Street headquarters does not belong to Richard Branson. Like any self-respecting billionaire environmentalist these days, his ride is flex-fuel.

Recently honored by the United Nations as the 2007 Citizen of the Year, Mr. Branson follows in the footsteps of previous recipients like Angelina Jolie, Bill Clinton and former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. "I have a lot to live up to," he says, "I have to make sure I'm a worthy recipient."

Following in anyone's footsteps seems like an unlikely prospect for Mr. Branson, who has become one of the world's best known CEOs as much for his antics and image as for his expanding global empire. He kite-surfs, lives on his own private island, and is planning to commercialize space travel.

Big-think is part of Mr. Branson's M.O., the spirit he has brought to his far-flung and diverse businesses. When he started Virgin Atlantic Airways he was a 30-something music exec, and everyone thought he was crazy, including his own board of directors. "I rang up the head of Boeing one day when I was 33 years old and I said, 'Hello, this is Richard Branson and is there any chance of me buying a secondhand 747?'"

The Boeing executive didn't know who Mr. Branson was ("Virgin?"), but the two ended up inking a deal that Mr. Branson remembers as one of his favorites. If the airline didn't work out, Mr. Branson would be able to give Boeing its plane back after a year, limiting his downside risk. "Based on that premise," he says, "I managed to persuade my very dubious record company to let me start an airline. And fortunately after the first 12 months, people seemed to like to fly it."

Eventually Virgin Records, his first business, was sold to help support the growing airline. "It was hard at the time," Mr. Branson laughs. "I'd been given this billion-dollar check and it was in my top pocket and I was running down the street with tears streaming down my face, having just sold my company. And I passed this sign saying 'Branson Sells for a Billion' and I thought, if anyone could see me, this looks a bit pathetic."

The sale of his record company in 1992 came at the best possible time, just before the traditional music industry headed into a downward spiral that continues to the current day. Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic Airways has leveraged its cheeky slogans -- "Virgin seeks travel companion(s)," "Extra inches where it counts" and others even less fit for a family newspaper -- to become the major rival of British Airways.

[From Richard Branson: The Weekend Interview -]

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matt eyes on the prizeSharlot at MOMA, circa 1995.

One last thing, my friend, Matthew Sharlot, gave me a micro-loan of $2500 to purchase my first computer, way back when, and I paid him back slowly, but surely, over nearly five years. Launched me into whatever it is I am doing now, and I'll always be grateful.
In the U.S., meanwhile, Virgin Money is charting a new path in "micro-finance," acting as a middleman to formalize lending relationships between friends or family. Mr. Branson's aunt once helped him with a second mortgage on a recording studio. The rate was slightly cheaper than he could have gotten from a bank and slightly more than she could have gotten by leaving the money on deposit. He paid off the loan in three years and everyone was happy.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on January 10, 2008 2:09 PM.

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