Shooting the Breeze with Richard Branson
REAL LIFE caught up with rebel billionaire, Sir Richard Branson, at his personal Caribbean retreat, Necker Island, BVI. A passionate environmentalist and fearless entrepreneur, known for his "screw it, let's do it!" attitude, he reveals what makes him tick.
RL: Tell us about Necker Island.
RB: Necker is our family home. I'm happiest and most laid-back when I'm on the island; therefore we've shaped it to be a sanctuary for fun and relaxation as well as a place to work hard. When we bought Necker in 1978, there wasn't much here, and as we're social people, we built the Great House to be a hub for get togethers with our family and friends. Over the years we've developed the island into what I believe is one of the most beautiful retreats in the world. Adding to the island's serenity, a strong Balinese style runs throughout the island. My lovely wife, Joan, fell in love with Balinese architecture many years ago, so that element of Necker is a reflection of her personality.
RL: Necker Island teems with wildlife, from pink flamingo to red-feathered ibises, Aldabra giant tortoises to blue rock iguanas, as well as seven species of endangered lemurs. Why is preserving these species important to you?
RB: Necker Island has always been a haven for animals. It's home to some incredibly rare plants and animals species, and we view it as our duty to make sure they thrive on the island. The way we treat our world is a reflection of who we are – our humanity, our intelligence, our conscience, and ultimately, our survival. I believe that protecting endangered species – whether on Necker, in Africa, in the ocean, or anywhere on Earth – is one of the most important things we can do. We must protect and preserve them, not just for their future but also for future generations.
RL: Where does your passion for preserving the environment stem from?
RB: My love of nature comes from my childhood. I grew up in the rural village of Shamley Green in Surrey, south of London and often holidayed with my family at the beach. I was an active child who loved the outdoors, and was encouraged by my parents to explore the countryside and discover the beauty of nature. Over the years, Virgin has entered a number of industries that aren't exactly famous for being environmentally conscious. We've tried to shake them up by doing things differently and employing strategies that focus on sustainability, and by working with and supporting great minds who care about the environment. If we don't preserve the earth and its environment, human beings will suffer too.
RL: You and your wife, Joan, recently joined Giving Pledge, a non-profit whereby wealthy individuals dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. 'Paying it forward' seems to be an intrinsic part of your search for legacy – can you pinpoint where this comes from?
RB: I was brought up to believe that you should always put others before yourself. During my career I have had the extraordinary opportunity to visit and do business in countries all over the world. Until you put yourself outside your comfort zone, and see the world with your own eyes, it's hard to truly understand the plight of those less fortunate. I have seen incredible heartbreak and incredible joy, and through a number of experiences have been motivated to give back. I understand that not everybody is in my position, but I believe that we all have the potential to contribute positively to the world. I particularly believe that business can be, and should be, a force for good. At the end of the day all we have is each other. If happiness is the goal, we should do things that not only contribute to our own happiness, but to the world's.
RL: What are your current ambitions?
RB: I spend most of my time working for our non-profit foundation Virgin Unite, and we have some incredibly exciting work going on ranging from tackling climate change with the Carbon War Room to conflict resolution with The Elders. I'm excited about continuing to expand Virgin Limited Edition‘s collection of award-winning luxury retreats, with the newest property, Mont Rochelle Hotel and Mountain Vineyard, just having opened in Franschhoek, South Africa in September. I'm also looking forward to advancements within our Virgin Galactic programme, and nervous, yet eager, to go into space myself.
RL: Who inspires you at this stage in your life?
RB: I'm inspired by people I meet every day. However, one constant source of inspiration throughout my life has been my mother, Eve. I am who I am today, and have had the career, opportunities and experiences I have had, because of the guidance and challenges I was given by my parents. At 90 years of age, mum is still surprising and inspiring me on a daily basis.
Branson with his beloved mother, Eve; Branson with his wife, Joan; Branson's 1989 wedding to Joan Templeman and attended by their children; goofing around with his children, Holly and Sam, and their spouses on Necker
RL: You have a famously close-knit family. With such a hectic schedule how do you stay connected?
RB: Family is everything to me. When my children were young I worked from home so that I could be close and watch them grow. When the mess of papers and technology became too much for my wife to handle, I bought a house down the road and set up office there, so I could still be close. My children, Holly and Sam, are both married now, but we always stay connected by phone and email, and they often join me on trips. It helps that they work within the Virgin Group too!
BRANSON'S TOP 10
1) Deepest regret – No regrets.
2) Greatest extravagance – Heli-skiing.
3) Guilty pleasure – 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' song - our novelty hit recorded with my aunt's sheep.
4) Drink of choice – Necker specialty cocktails made from seasonal fruits.
5) Favourite restaurant – Halepi, a Greek restaurant in Notting Hill, London.
6) Favourite hotel – Soho Grand, NYC.
7) Preferred artist – Sex Pistols.
8) Suitcase essential – Notebook.
9) Idea of a perfect happiness – A day on Necker.
10) If you could be reincarnated – Ring-tail lemur.
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