January 9, 2008
Richard Branson

Ipek Cem recently met with businessman and global activist Richard Branson of the Virgun Group. They discussed a wide range of topics including his new business ventures, space travel and his fight against global warming.

Ipek Cem: My guest today is Sir Richard Branson. He is the Founder, and Chairman of the Board of the Virgin Group of Companies. Welcome to Global Leaders.


Richard Branson: Thank you for having us.


Ipek Cem: Throughout the world you are known as a big entrepreneur and a very successful businessman, but also as an activist for various issues such as AIDS, such as global warming, and coming from your days even as a student. How do you combine these two different traits: one of a businessman, and that of an activist, in the same person?


Richard Branson: Well, first of all, I've never really seen myself as a businessman I started, you know, when I was 16 years old wanting to create a magazine, and I wanted to make a difference with the magazine, but in order for the magazine to survive I had to also worry about distribution, sales, advertising. So I had to become a businessman almost by mistake. And over the years I've seen situations like, you know, airlines that are badly run, and I've decided to create an airline, or train companies that were badly run so we decided to set up a train company, and do it better.  So we've gone into a lot of different areas where we felt that we could improve things, but the business aspect is just... you know... you have to be a businessman to make sure you can pay salaries – but it wasn't my principal interest to create, you know, to create a business. As an activist, you know obviously I am in a position where I think I can make a difference, and I feel strongly about certain things. You know. Wars in this day and age, we should be intelligent enough, you know, for mankind never to  go to war again, an I'm... we'll be out there fighting with the elders to make sure that wars become  a thing of the past. Disease: there is no reason why, you know, people should be dying of AIDS, or malaria, or TB, or dysentery, or... and it's up to all of us, I think to work together to make sure that is a thing of the past. Global warming, you know, it shouldn't be something which destroys, you know, our grandchildren. It's up to us, work hard to make sure that, you know, make sure it does not become, you know, we do not go beyond the tipping point.


Ipek Cem: You recently made a pledge of 25 million dollars towards an award for finding some sort of way of capturing the carbon in the atmosphere. How hopeful are you about the prospects of who's going to win the award. Do you think there are great ideas and technologies out there that will qualify?


Richard Branson: Well, there are some people, and James Lovelock who is the famous scientist who discovered the hole in the Ozone, and wrote the Gaia theory, who think that the amount of carbon already in the air means that man is going to be destroyed, ultimately. Fortunately, they are in the minority, but let's assume that they're correct. The only way, therefore, of saving mankind is to come up with a way of extracting carbon from the Earth's atmosphere. So we've put up this award. We've had a number of submissions. Cambridge University are going through those submissions. But I think it's important people do not rely on anybody winning that award. The important thing is that that we come up with fuels that we can use in our cars, we can use in our planes, we can use in our trains, that we can use in our power stations, that don't damage the environment. And actually, if we can come up with those fuels, that would be, good business as well, because it will mean we will not be as reliant on the Middle East for our oil, and hopefully oil prices will come back down again, and we can live in a clean world.


Ipek Cem: When we think of the Virgin brand, it's the number one well-known brand in England, and it's a very well known brand around the world... the things that come to mind are: the airlines; the music; the Megastores; and now you have many other the related ventures. You just talked about a fuel, a cleaner fuel for possibly the airline industry. We know that your airline is expanding to the US, and there may be other routes, as well. How probable do you find this, in terms of timing, and in terms of... you know... the actuality of it?


Richard Branson: Well, we are... we've  said that as a group of companies that all the profits we make from our airline businesses we will put in to trying to find clean fuels. And that could be as much as three billion dollars over the next 10 years. So it's a big investment going into trying to develop clean fuel. Next year we will fly, for the first time, a 747 on partly "clean fuel". So maybe you know, 20%, 25% "clean fuel".


Ipek Cem: This will be a commercial flight?


Richard Branson: We won't have passengers on the first flight.


Ipek Cem: OK!


Richard Branson: But you know, obviously it will have been tested on jet engines on the ground and we already believe it will be successful, and we've already got tests going.

So assuming that we can get a jet engine to fly on clean fuels, we then need to see whether we can come up with a clean fuel that can be easily reproducible, and that will not eat into the food supply. And, we'll see. The jury's still open, but hopefully that will happen.


Ipek Cem: We hope it will be a success.


Richard Branson: Thank you.


Ipek Cem: When we think of the name "Richard Branson" a lot of adjectives come to mind, and some people say "crazy businessman", some people say, you know, just an "amazing marketer", other people say "business genius". They use the term "mogul"next to your name, "business mogul", which I find a bit amusing because you're actually not behaving as one. A lot of people, when you talk about entrepreneurship and success in business, a lot of people are looking for this magic formula for success. And oftentimes you have said that there is no one formula, everybody has to find there own formula, but in you opinion, what has contributed to your success? What are the ingredients?


Richard Branson: I think the most important thing for any leader is to be a leader. Somebody who is really good at motivating people, who loves people, who looks for the best in people, who praises people, who surrounds themselves with, you know, highly motivated people, and so I think that to be a really good business leader you must be a good leader of people. And then, I think, you've got to inspire the people around you to believe in what you are doing. You've got to, you know, create something that's going to make a real difference in the world, that all the people who are working with you will kill for. I mean, will work day and night to make it a success. If you're, you know, if you're really making a difference to people's lives then, you know, then the people you are working with will work day and night to make it work, and hopefully your business should be a success.


Ipek Cem: When I was reading your biography you talked oftentimes about purpose, and about drive. And I'm wondering with – of course, you've also had failures in your life, success is not a one-way street – but I'm wondering what are the new frontiers for you? What are the things that excite you the most today? And what are the new, exciting ventures for Virgin?


Richard Branson: Well, if you are talking about pure "exciting", the most exciting, I think must be space travel. We're building, and I have to pinch myself when I say it...


Ipek Cem: Virgin Galactic.


Richard Branson: Five spaceships, and two mother ships to send people into space, and in two year's time we'll be, hopefully, sending people regularly into space, so people can explore space. And from that, you know, we hope that the technology will enable us to build aircraft – well, spacecraft – that can travel, say, from Turkey to Los Angeles in half an hour, or Turkey to Sidney in half an hour. That's popping people out of the Earth's atmosphere and back down again. And in time we hope to put, you know, hotels in space and, you know, maybe in my children's time to start populating another... another galaxy, or somewhere up there. So that's the really exciting project. The more practical projects we're working on, I mean I think we have a lot of exciting things happening at Virgin, you know, but trying to save the environment by trying to come up with clean fuels, you know, it doesn't sound a very romantic, exciting business, but actually it's obviously an incredibly important business if we can pull it off.


Ipek Cem: You just mentioned Turkey, and you are now in Istanbul. Turkey is an exciting market. Turkey is a market, and a country that attracts a lot of attention, and increasing foreign investment. I know that, as Virgin, you operate in over 20 countries around the world. Do you have any interest in entering the Turkish market? What would be the products, or the services that you would offer here?


Richard Branson: Well, one of the reasons I have come here today, and making a speech, where I raised money for a charitable foundation that does quite a lot of work in Africa.

But the other reason I am here today is just to find out more about Turkey, and the Turkish market. And I've already had meetings with business people who would like to work with us in bringing the Virgin brand to Turkey. And, so we've been slow to come to Turkey, we've been experimenting on the Brits, on the Americans, on the French, but now I think we have a number of businesses which I think could work well in Turkey, and so hopefully over the next two or three years Virgin will become established here in Turkey.


Ipek Cem: In what areas, do you think? If you could say it?


Richard Branson: I think there are a number of different areas that we've had a lot of success overseas that could work here. Obviously the music industry, we've had a lot of success overseas; the mobile phone industry, we've done very well overseas; the financial service industry, we've done very well overseas. I think definitely those three industries we should look at Turkey and maybe health clubs, or maybe one or two of our other businesses.


Ipek Cem: Throughout your career you've also had a sort of renegade streak in you, or what I will term as that, and you weren't afraid to pick a fight with the establishment. Whether it was going up against British Airways, or now challenging the open skies, and trying to enter the US market, which is a very settled market in its own right. Do you feel that with time, and with age, this is a streak that is lessening in you, or this is just part of you going on?


Richard Branson: No, I think that if you... if you start in business without financial backing, and you're taking on, you know, the big corporations, you have to have a renegade streak in you, because, you know, the big corporations will do everything they can to stop you getting established. They'll do everything they can to smother, you know, to smother you at birth. Literally, if possible. And so... so you have to be able to be willing to take them to court, you have to be willing to, you know, use every method to try to survive, and I don't think that, you know, I don't think that that will stop as we get older, or... you know, because most businesses we start are quite small in their sector, you know. We have 300 different companies, but each of them are the sort of Goliath against the... sorry, the David against the Goliath in their particular, in their particular sector... and it's more fun, as well!


Ipek Cem: That's important. When I was reading your website, the definition for Virgin Group of Companies, it read something to the effect to it's a group of companies which are based on new ventures, or venture capital, which I thought was an interesting way to formulate how Virgin works. And I know that you are always seeking good ideas, and I also read that you make a 30 second decision, a first litmus test decision, about whether an idea could work or not. What is the process of different people who are entrepreneurs bringing ideas to you – I'm sure there are many of them?


Richard Branson: Yes. A lot of Virgin companies have come from, you know, people just coming and banging on our door, and saying, "We have a great idea." And, you know, we went into the mobile phone business because a guy called Tom Alexander came to my home one day, you know, and he'd worked for a mobile phone company and said, you know, "The Virgin brand will be very strong in this, and I can bring the expertise." And so I said, you know, "Screw it. Let's do it. Get on with it". But we don't just want an idea, we want people who are capable of running that idea, and then what we will do is invest in those people, give them a stake in the company, and tell them to get on with it. And, in Turkey, you know, we haven' had many people from Turkey come to us and say, you know "We have a great project", and, basically, our door is open and we'd love to have some people from Turkey come to us with ideas to launch various Virgin companies here.


Ipek Cem: Good to hear. When you were growing up, the world was a different place in the early 70s, even in the late 60s. I feel that the youth of that time was much more involved in politics, and much more involved in a concept of changing the world, so to speak. Now we are living in a world where there is maybe not wars, per se, but there are war type situations in many different areas of the world. How can we have the young people more involved? Or, do you feel my observation is correct? Or, do you feel young people are still as involved in changing the world?


Richard Branson: I think that, yeah, when I was in the late 60s, we were marching on the streets against the Vietnamese war, and I think that young people brought an end to the Vietnamese war. And I suspect that more people should have marched against the Iraqi invasion before it happened, and, you know, a lot of people did. It should have been, you know, we should have made it absolutely clear to the American and British government that this was wrong. That it should not have happened. We should have been able to get rid of Saddam Hussein in other ways. You didn't, we didn't have to kill and maim a million people to do it. So... so I think people need to be more vocal, young people need to be more active in making sure that our leaders never ever allow another war to happen again.


Ipek Cem: Another way you made kind of waves around the world is your record breaking adventures, whether they are on a boat, or speed boat, or with a hot air balloon. These are often life risking experiences, and you have actually even lost a close associate in some related ways. How... What prompts you to take on these challenges? I know that you have a family, and that you are, clearly, emotionally at risk, and personally at risk doing this.


Richard Branson: As a young man, I decided quite early on that if... I'd much rather say "Yes" rather than "No". And that life has been, you know, far fuller, and far richer by saying "Yes" rather than saying "No". And I'd much rather BE the first person to fly across the Atlantic in a balloon, than watch somebody else be the first person to fly across the Atlantic in a balloon. I'd much rather BE the first person to take a space ship, you know, his own space ship into space, rather that watch somebody else do that. You know, yes, in life... it puts more risks on you personally, but, you know, life is full of risks. I mean driving, you know I mean, a friend of mine, Steve Fossett, who did wonderful adventures in his lifetime died very recently by not doing an adventure. But at least he'd led a very full life and had pushed himself to the limits. So, you know, obviously if you do these adventures, you've got to try to do them as professionally as possible, you know, trying to make sure you come home. But, you know, if nobody took risks I think the life, the world would be a sorrier state as a result.


Ipek Cem: We hope we will see you more often in Turkey, and thank you for the interview.


Richard Branson: Thank you so much. Nice to see you. Pleasure.


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.