The Race for Space

Vir­gin Group founder Sir Richard Bran­son ruled the skies with his air­line. Now, the un­con­ven­tional en­tre­pre­neur and phi­lan­thropist is aim­ing even higher.

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Sir Richard Bran­son could be for­given for look­ing a lit­tle worn out. In the week prior up to our meet­ing, he vis­ited Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia, Dubai, New Zealand, Los An­ge­les, and, lat­terly, Seat­tle. As well as a se­ries of paid speeches, he launched a mo­bile phone com­pany in Dubai and a new Vir­gin Ac­tive gym in Sin­ga­pore. Two nights be­fore, he dined with a small group of guests in­clud­ing 47-year-old for­mer Kiwi su­per­model Rachel Hunter and New Zealand’s 2016 bronze Olympic medal win­ning Pole Vaulter El­iza Mc­cart­ney at Auck­land’s Sea­far­ers Club to talk about en­trepreneur­ship. When we meet, he is in the cap­i­tal of Amer­ica’s Pa­cific Northwest for 36 hours be­fore trav­el­ling to his is­land home of Necker in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands for a char­ity event be­fore a week’s hol­i­day. He looks, un­sur­pris­ingly, tired. Un­der­neath his trade­mark white shirt with plung­ing neck­line, a plaster sits on his chest, and he of­fers his left hand to greet me, as he has in­jured his right. Are th­ese the last vis­i­ble signs of the mo­tor­bike crash last year which he him­self said he was “in­cred­i­bly lucky” to sur­vive? Not quite. His hand’s ills are the re­sult of ten­nis el­bow, while the plaster is the re­sult of a rou­tine med­i­cal. But still, more so than when I last caught up with him in Ed­in­burgh a few years back, Bran­son, now 67 years old, is look­ing his age. How­ever he may ap­pear out­wardly, the en­tre­pre­neur shows no signs of slow­ing down, and dis­misses out of hand any sug­ges­tions he may be close to step­ping back from public life. “That’s a po­lite way of say­ing you’re get­ting old,” he re­torts, when asked about suc­ces­sion in his Vir­gin em­pire. His com­pa­nies span ev­ery­thing from health­care to tech­nol­ogy, and op­er­ate around the world, in­vest­ing in some 60 firms in 35 coun­tries with a com­bined an­nual turnover of more than 24 bil­lion USD, em­ploy­ing in ex­cess of 71,000 em­ploy­ees. “I del­e­gated re­spon­si­bil­ity of the day-to-day run­ning of the Vir­gin Group years ago [six years ago to be spe­cific, and it was to Josh Bayliss, who is still the chief ex­ec­u­tive to­day] and we’ve got a fan­tas­tic team in place,” he goes on. “Holly and Sam [his adult chil­dren] will con­tinue to be in­volved with it, and they’ll con­tinue to be in­volved in our foun­da­tion which is where the three of us, the fam­ily, spend the most time th­ese days.” His foun­da­tion, Vir­gin Unite, was es­tab­lished by Bran­son in 2004 to chan­nel money to a range of good causes, from hu­man rights to cli­mate change to healthy oceans. “But that doesn’t mean the group isn’t busy. We’ve got three cruise ships be­ing built in Italy, three new [Vir­gin] At­lantic routes in the last few days; a ho­tel open­ing in San Fran­cisco in a cou­ple of months’ time, and a ho­tel in New York in six months’ time af­ter that. And we’ve got space­ships go­ing into space in the not too dis­tant fu­ture.”

“So apart from the fact that I’ve be­come a sort of se­rial phi­lan­thropist in that we’re launch­ing as many phil­an­thropic or­gan­i­sa­tions as com­pa­nies, if not more so, I and the group have a lot go­ing on.” So no signs of a slow-down then? “For­tu­nately my par­ents lived well into their 90’s, so hope­fully I’m still go­ing to be both­er­ing you for the next 20 years or so,” he grins. But, as he freely ad­mits, Bran­son is spend­ing a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of his time on char­i­ta­ble projects, leav­ing Bayliss and his team to get on with con­tin­u­ing his busi­ness le­gacy. The 10 mil­lion USD he makes on av­er­age a year by giv­ing speeches goes di­rect to the fund, and he is part of the Giv­ing Pledge – set up by Bill Gates and War­ren Buf­fett – which means that 50 per cent of his wealth is de­voted to good causes. “We call it the Liv­ing Pledge,” jokes one of Bran­son’s aides, “as he spends so much of his time run­ning around the world to ful­fil it.” “I’m busy,” con­fesses the en­tre­pre­neur, “but busy com­bin­ing the two and that makes me happy.” One area that has kept him par­tic­u­larly busy of late has been the sale of Vir­gin Amer­ica, the US do­mes­tic air­line, which Vir­gin started in 2007. The busi­ness was floated in New York in 2014, leav­ing Vir­gin with a 30.85 per cent stake, but fewer vot­ing rights due to US De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion rules around nonci­t­i­zens’ con­trol of air­lines. As such, when do­mes­tic ri­val Alaska Air came knock­ing, Bran­son was not able to stop the sale, which com­pleted in De­cem­ber for 2.6 bil­lion USD. Last month, Alaska an­nounced it would be re­tir­ing the Vir­gin Amer­ica brand from 2019, even though it had been voted Amer­ica’s favourite air­line on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions. And though many of the fea­tures Vir­gin helped pioneer have be­come com­mon­place on ma­jor US air­lines, some of its unique quirks will be missed by its fre­quent fliers: things like fresh flow­ers at check in, on-board sculpted translu­cent bulk­heads, mood-light­ing, and of course touch­screen tele­vi­sions for at-seat food and drinks ser­vice. Bran­son even wrote an open let­ter ques­tion­ing the de­ci­sion. To say he is un­happy about the sit­u­a­tion would be an un­der­state­ment. “It is baf­fling and sad and I think some com­pa­nies should re­alise that com­pa­nies are more than just money-mak­ing ma­chines where they try to maximise the dol­lar, which I don’t think they ac­tu­ally will do with this,” he lam­basts. “I just won­der what it was that Alaska bought; why did they bother?” Bran­son ex­presses his grat­i­tude to the thou­sands of air­line staff

who have worked for him over the past decade, as well as “the thou­sands and thou­sands” of pas­sen­gers who “sent in such great notes.” De­spite be­ing pub­licly op­posed to the deal, he did spend time with Alaska’s man­age­ment be­fore it com­pleted: “I gen­uinely be­lieved they would trea­sure the peo­ple and the prod­uct.” In­stead, he as­serts, the ri­val has “ripped the heart out of it”, de­spite be­ing con­tracted to pay Vir­gin a li­cence fee for the brand un­til 2040; a point Alaska’s own­ers are un­der­stood to con­test. “I thought I’d be po­lite, but I de­cided not to be,” he smirks, well aware Vir­gin Amer­ica’s new own­ers could well be lis­ten­ing. Re­cently, how­ever, the en­tre­pre­neur – who reg­u­larly polls as the UK’S most recog­nised busi­ness­man – has been less keen on speak­ing on his project to take peo­ple into space. Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic, as the fledg­ling busi­ness is known, has been be­set by tech­ni­cal and other dif­fi­cul­ties, not least the fa­tal crash of its Space­shiptwo in Cal­i­for­nia’s Mo­jave Desert in Oc­to­ber 2014. De­spite the idea prov­ing pop­u­lar with fu­ture trav­ellers – some 500 po­ten­tial cus­tomers have spent 250,000 USD on reserving their spot on one of its trips – it is per­haps the one busi­ness he has found the hard­est to get off the ground. Af­ter the crash, Bran­son said his dream of space travel may have ended. But Ga­lac­tic, un­der boss and for­mer NASA chief of staff George White­sides, has re­grouped, re­dou­bled its fo­cus on safety, and ap­pears to be mak­ing progress. Last Au­gust it re­ceived its first op­er­at­ing li­cence from the US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity, sub­ject to a se­ries of con­di­tions, in­clud­ing the reg­u­la­tor ver­i­fy­ing test­ing re­sults be­fore any pas­sen­gers can board its Space­shiptwo – de­signed to hold two pi­lots and six pas­sen­gers – which will be car­ried by launch craft White Knight Two 100 kilo­me­tres into the sky. “The test pro­gramme is go­ing re­ally well, and as long as we’ve got our brave test pi­lots push­ing it to the limit we think that af­ter what­ever it is, 12 years of hard work, we’re nearly there.” When ex­actly will he be nearly there? Af­ter all, Bran­son him­self – and some of his fam­ily – have com­mit­ted to be­ing on the first flight. “Well we stopped giv­ing dates,” he con­fesses. “But I think I would be very dis­ap­pointed if we’re not into space with a test flight by the end of the year and I am not into space mys elf next year, and the pro­gramme isn’t well un­der­way by the end of next year.” Whether that date holds is open to de­bate, but it is clear that de­spite his years – he turned 67 in July – the bearded bil­lion­aire is far from slow­ing down.

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