Richard Branson: Rocket Man

The Wall Street Journal:

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.”

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.”

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Photo by Ismael Roldan.

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