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Sir Richard Branson turned 70 right in the middle of 2020, the most tumultuous year in a lifetime. It seems a metaphor for his life – a bright and positive celebration of life amid a sea of angst and doubt. He looks and acts much younger than his seven decades (in fact, he just turned 71), and yet it feels like he should be far older; that he’s been around as a business leader forever.
My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.
Sometimes people wonder why someone who has everything they could possibly ever want (a private island, and an estimated net worth of around US$6.26 billion) doesn’t just slow down a bit and enjoy their retirement. But it’s the drive to continue pursuing new projects and business interests that keeps people like Branson young. It’s part of their DNA; it makes them who they are, and explains why they have that wealth and success in the first place.
When the former Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson also reached 70, he was pushed on when he might retire, and he responded by saying: “The notion of a retirement age is anathema to me. There should be a law against it. The calendar can’t decide how alert or vigorous a person is.”
Branson loves what he does, and he won’t be stopping anytime soon. “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.”
It’s been just over 50 years since he started Virgin Mail Order, the success of which led to the opening of a record shop on London’s Oxford Street, which morphed into Virgin Records. The name Virgin was coined because Branson and his early collaborators were all completely new to business.
Born in 1973, the Virgin Records label would prove the springboard for everything that has followed in the ensuing 50 years, and there have been a number of failures along the way: Virgin Cola, Virgin Clothing, Virgin Publishing, Virgin Cars, even Virgin Brides. Like all great inventors and entrepreneurs, Branson only sees failure as a necessary step in the learning curve: “There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you don’t make the same ones over and over again.”
If Branson hadn’t had such drive, ambition and ambivalence to failures, then Virgin might never have got started in the first place. A dyslexic who struggled through school, at 17 he was living in a squat in London. He had already tried and failed to sell pet birds and Christmas trees. After starting the record shop as a 21-year-old, his parents had to remortgage their family home to help him pay a hefty tax fine.
A former headmaster had famously told him he would “either end up in prison or become a millionaire”. In those early days, it possibly looked a toss-up over which way things would fall.
But Virgin Records became a massive success, initially riding the wave of early 70s prog rock and then famously signing the Sex Pistols when other labels wouldn’t touch them. The police even raided a Virgin record store just for displaying the Pistols’ album Never Mind the Bollocks in its window. Culture Club, Simple Minds and The Human League guaranteed that the label flew high. And so Branson quite naturally entered the airline industry.
In fact, Branson’s first flight was a private plane he chartered to get him home from Puerto Rico when his flight was canceled. He offered a ride to the other stranded passengers for a small fee to cover costs. If ever there was an example of the most pure, organic, entrepreneurial spirit, then that must be it.
Virgin Atlantic was followed by Virgin Holidays, and as the floodgates opened, many other industries fell under the Virgin umbrella, including Virgin Trains and Virgin Mobile. And in 2004, Virgin Galactic launched with the concept of the birth of space tourism. Having come a long way from that Oxford Street record shop, Branson clearly envisaged going, literally, a long way further.
Although Branson had predicted the first passengers would be launched into space in the late 2000s, space tourism remains a work in progress. In 2019, a partnership deal was struck with sportswear entrepreneurs Under Armour to design spacesuits for the pilots and Virgin Galactic staff. Of the three ‘space barons’ – which includes Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – Branson was the first who pledged to ride in his own spacecraft.
This month, Branson turned that dream into a reality. The thrillseeking entrepreneur made headlines when he ventured into space for the first time, rocketing towards the stars on board his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. In his boldest adventure yet, Branson soared more than 80 kilometers above the New Mexico desert aboard VSS Unity. It was the company’s fourth rocket-powered spaceflight and the first with a full crew in the cabin.
“I have dreamed of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” an elated Branson said after the flight. “The whole thing was just magical.”
While it has been reported that Branson put his Necker Island up as collateral against loans during COVID-19, he remains committed to air travel – both in his legacy airline and his visions of the future.
In October 2020, the Virgin Group finalized negotiations to retain a stake in Virgin Australia, something that Branson was enormously proud and gratified to have been involved with.
November saw the first passengers travel in Virgin’s levitating Hyperloop pod system. Virgin Hyperloop is a futuristic mode of transport in which passengers would travel in floating pods at speeds of almost 1,000 kilometers per hour.
Increasingly, he also remains committed to renewable energy. Virgin Fuels helps to invest billions into environmentally friendly energy sources. Previously a global warming skeptic, a meeting with Al Gore changed Branson’s views.
On his personal blog, you can see an incredibly fit-looking Branson completing the Strive Challenge: a one-kilometer swim, 20-kilometer bike ride and 10-kilometer run. A week prior he completed a 100-kilometer bike ride and 10-kilometer run. He looks tanned and happy.
Alongside him on the blog are stories from the multibillionaire’s smiling, stunning and active adult children Sam and Holly. Despite his work ethic, Branson clearly has a balance in his life. Recently, he suggested that in the future, the four-day weekend will become more commonplace. Can you imagine Richard Branson going a whole four days without working, though?