Once you’ve amassed a $5 billion fortune across a wide range of industries — and have your own private island — you might choose to take a rest. But for Richard Branson, the idea doesn’t have a strong appeal. He doesn’t mind risking his own safety to push the limits of the possible.
“I have something like 10 world records, for foolish things,” he says. And with Virgin Galactic, his spaceflight company, the “Star Trek” fan is getting ready to send humans into the final frontier.
Just earlier, Branson was “seconds away from certain death” while hiking Mont Blanc with his son Sam. Falling rocks “the size of small cars” came bouncing toward the climbers, who quickly scrambled behind large boulders to escape.
“I’ve definitely fallen under lucky stars,” he says.
Speaking of which, On Oct. 16, the 68-year-old English entrepreneur is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (watch the live stream below), honoring his contributions to the record industry. Though music is just one part of his Virgin empire, Branson sees his businesses as being linked by a common thread: entertainment.
As he tells Variety: “When we announced that we were going into the airline business, Lord King, who ran British Airways, said, ‘Why on earth is somebody from the entertainment business going in to the airline business?’ He said that I was too old to rock and roll and too young to fly. What people who run businesses don’t realize is that people want to be entertained. They are human beings just like people who go to rock concerts.”
So when Branson launched Virgin Atlantic with the express purpose of beating British Airways at its own game, “we made sure that people didn’t just have a lump of chicken dumped on their lap with no entertainment,” he says. “We were the first airline in the world to put seat-back videos on all the planes. So kids could get their kind of entertainment; teenagers could get their kind of entertainment; and then parents could get theirs. Everything we do, whether it’s airlines or spaceships or whatever, we do it with a smile and we do it to entertain people.”
Branson’s initial foray into the media business was Student magazine, which he launched as a teenager rebelling against a highly regulated boys’ school. Branson is dyslexic, and learned as a youth that he would need to write things down if he wanted to remember anything. So he carried a notebook everywhere, becoming a reporter by default.
“I wanted be an editor, to be a journalist, and to put the world right,” he says. “So I actually left school at 15 to start a national magazine for young people to campaign against the Vietnam War … and against the kind of exam-based education system that existed in those days.”
Both Mick Jagger and John Lennon eventually sat for interviews with Student.
Branson leveraged his connections among musicians to turn the magazine into a modest mail-order record service. “I found that music was incredibly expensive to buy in those days,” Branson recalls. “So I decided to start a little mail-order company selling music. The record companies wouldn’t supply us with music because we didn’t have any credit worthiness. So I bought all my music. We would go and buy the music from somebody whose record dropped and try to get a discount from them. It was only when articulated lorries started turning up at this tiny little record shop, and we would be waiting outside the back with our lorries to, you know, to take them, that the record companies finally realized that this is bigger than a record shop, and they started doing business with us.”
The record service became the first Branson enterprise to sport the Virgin name. “I was 16 years old,” Branson says. “I was a virgin in business and I suspect I was … whether I was a virgin generally I’m not quite sure. But anyway, it was a bunch of girls sitting in the basement trying to come up with the name. We got down to Slipped Disc Records, because the old black vinyls used to slip all the time when you were listening to them. And then one of the girls screamed, ‘We’re all virgins! Why don’t we call it Virgin?’”
“I had four years trying to get the name registered,” he adds of the period between 1966 and 1970. “The registry office said it was rude. In the end I looked up in the dictionary and saw the word virgin defined as ‘pure, untouched, unblemished.’ So I sent the words along to the registry office and they finally gave in and said, ‘Yeah, on the face of it, maybe you’re right.’”
Branson adapted the record service into a store, “a tiny little place upstairs, where you could sit on pillows and smoke joints, and just put on headphones, and [meet] people who knew what they were talking about, as far as music was concerned.”
The Virgin Records store attracted not just audiophiles, but music makers in search of record contracts. “One young musician called Mike Oldfield came one day with a tape, and it was an instrumental tape; he’d recorded all the instruments himself, and it was hauntingly beautiful music. I said I would try to see if I could persuade a record company to put it out. I went to seven record companies, and nobody would put it out, because there were no vocals on it. And so, I thought, screw that, let’s set up our own record company, and put it out. So Virgin Records was born with ‘Tubular Bells,’ which became an enormous hit around the world.”
On the back of “Tubular Bells,” Virgin was able to sign such acts as the Sex Pistols, and later artists as varied as Genesis, Janet Jackson, the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Paula Abdul, Stevie Winwood, Ziggy Marley and David Bowie. “Virgin really became the biggest independent record label in the world,” Branson says.
In 1992, Branson sold Virgin Records to Thorn EMI for $1 billion, an experience he describes as both his highest high and his lowest low. He used the proceeds to keep Virgin Atlantic Airways afloat during a bleak financial period, and later invested the airline profits into research for renewable energy.
You could say Branson got out just in time. Although the 90s was a heady decade for the industry, it was followed by a downturn that nearly threatened its very existence. Branson credits the business of “live concerts … [which have] lived on forever and they are stronger than ever.”
He also applauds the arrival of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. “It’s great to see bands now beginning to make decent money out of streaming. The industry went through 15 years of difficult times, but it appears to be booming again.”
Is there someone he considers the next Richard Branson?
“When I started 50 years ago in the U.K. it was really just myself and Anita Roddick who ran the Body Shop who were the two entrepreneurs,” he offers. “The incredibly exciting thing today is that there are thousands of budding entrepreneurs, all capable of being the next Richard Branson. It gives me great satisfaction when people approach me and say that as a result of reading ‘Losing My Virginity’ or ‘Finding My Virginity,’ my autobiographies, that they quit a boring job to set up a successful business.”
Branson is in a reflective mood as a he prepares to receive one of Hollywood’s highest accolades. Looking back on his career, he honestly wouldn’t change a thing.
“I still pinch myself every day. My life has been an absolute blast and continues to be. I love being in a position where I can create things I can be proud of and nowadays, through our Foundation, make a real positive difference in the world. I’d be a sad person if I felt it could get better than that!”
Watch a Live Stream of Branson’s Walk of Fame ceremony below: