Interview: Sir Richard Branson


It’s not every day we get a chance to sit down with one of the world’s richest and most industrious men. Actually, Sir Richard is only the 236th richest person in the world according to Forbes. I thought he’d be higher. *shrug* Anyway, we had the esteemed pleasure of taking Sir Richard’s IM interview virginity last week as he was jetting back to his private island, Necker.

CBS’ The Early Show’s Dave Price was also onboard to broadcast weather updates from a Virgin American flight and kept pulling Sir Richard into one segment after another. It got to be really annoying after a while.

Sir Richard: Richard here. This is pretty cool!

CG: Good morning, Sir Richard!

Sir Richard: Communicating with you from 35,000 feet.

CG: That’s exciting.

Sir Richard: Nice to meet you again.

CG: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me this morning. First things first. What was with your outfit yesterday at the Boston launch for Virgin America? We’re all dying to know.

Sir Richard: I was invited by Harvard’s Hasty Pudding to appear on their Saturday show. But back on Necker then so decided that the San Francisco flight was the most appropriate place to audition for the next time I’m in town.

CG: Where are you now? Where are you off to?

Sir Richard: seat 1A. About to do a wing walk.

CG: Heh.

Sir Richard: Off to an environmental conference on Necker. Setting up a carbon war room. Strange place to announce that on a plane! Burning up a lot of fuel.

CG: What gadgets are you carrying with you, Sir Richard?

Sir Richard: I’ve got a Virgin Mobile UK phone and a BlackBerry.

CG: So it’s fashion week here in NYC and my better half asked me to ask you this. Would you consider partnering with emerging designers to produce VA uniforms or apparel?

Sir Richard: Funny you should mention that. CBS’ early show is coming back onboard in March and we thought we’d do a fashion show with new uniform ideas and maybe the history of flight uniforms.

CG: Why don’t you consider routes such as Charlotte to Cleveland worthy of VA’s great service?

Sir Richard: sorry — Dave Price is talking to me. I think I have to go — we are about to shoot the next segment.

[That bastard Dave Price.

A few minutes later…]

CG: Speaking of environmental issues. How is the Virgin group adapting to the changing climate? How was the bio-fuel flight? How committed is the Virgin group to green tech or is it all talk? Will your commitment expand to your luxury liners, balloons, etc.?

Sir Richard: We are very committed to cleaning up our dirty fuels business. Thank you for mentioning the bio fuels flight; we are also flying planes made of carbon composite. And we started an investment fund called Virgin Green Fund that invests in clean tech. One of them is Solyndra, which I am sure will be one of the largest solar companies in the US over the next three years
A flight attendant is on my lap right now. We are getting ready to do another segment.

CG: You’re a lucky man.

[A few minutes later…]

CG: Would you mind elaborating a bit further?

Sir Richard: The airlines will continue to do what they can to offset their carbon footprints, make progress in developing alternative fuels, and work with partners that are environmentally responsible. Each of them is committed to contributing all of their profits into clean energy investments. On that front, I already mentioned that Virgin Group has a stake in Virgin Green Fund, which raised funds and is now making investments in clean technology. Again, one of them is a low cost solar panel company called Solyndra, which will be one of the largest solar companies in the US in the next three years. The other area of growth is likely to be the energy storage side – electricity can be sent from California to New York with minimal loss but right now it can’t be efficiently stored for more than a few hours. With innovation on that side, the way we think about energy storage will change significantly.

CG: Will Atlantic implement in-flight wi-fi or cell phone service (like British Airways has done)?

Sir Richard: BA are only doing in-flight wifi for data, not voice, on their yet-to-be launched service from London City Airport. Virgin Atlantic will announce wifi in due course, but we’re not likely to do cell phone service as I don’t think our long-haul flight passengers would appreciate it. Would you?

CG: I’d end up punching them in the face.

Sir Richard: Me too! (JK. That’s just me, Peter, joshing around. Sir Richard didn’t actually say that.)

CG: I know you folks are about to land, so here’s one last question.

CG: How have you revised strategy, particularly Virgin America’s, to accommodate the dismal status of the economy?

Sir Richard: When you offer a better product than your competitors – and at the best price — you’re going to do well, even in a downturn. That said, Virgin America has some key strengths in this climate: a fuel efficient new fleet, a streamlined low cost business structure, and the best and most friendly employees you’ll ever meet. Virgin America is also growing; right now, you don’t want to be worried about shedding 1/3 of a clunky old fleet and network. They’re also continuing to focus on the customer — which is the first thing the other guys start neglecting. People aren’t going to stop flying; they’re going to look for a better value, and that’s what Virgin America does best. Also, Virgin America have got a revenue platform in RED and the GOGO wifi service. Customers are willing to pay more for a good product – they’ve seen this with cocktails, food, and a third of some flights paying for Internet access.
note: Virgin America will be the first domestic airline to offer wifi fleetwide by the second quarter.

CG: Oh, one last question. Can I come visit you on Necker Island? I saw it on Cribs.