At the entrance of the new Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Clubhouse in Terminal 4 of New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, Richard Branson and Chris Rossi, Virgin Atlantic Airways’ senior vice president for North America, shake hands with all of the invited clients, customers, and other guests at the lounge’s grand opening on March 5. Naturally, there are immaculately groomed flight attendants in red uniforms by their side.
The genial 61-year-old billionaire seems fully in his element in Virgin’s new $7 million lounge—the first in the country to have a hair salon, in addition to a spa, shower, pool table, bar, and on-site kitchen. He tells Bloomberg Businessweek about his travel habits and guilty pleasures, what he considers to be Britain’s most useless export, and commits one of the worst puns we’ve ever heard.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bloomberg Businessweek: What’s your travel routine? Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Branson: I live on a tiny little island in the Caribbean, Necker Island. When I am there, I keep fit. I kite surf, I surf, I play tennis, I swim. I am really active. When I am traveling, I am horribly inactive and working ridiculous hours. I definitely need to spend time on Necker to recuperate from all the traveling. I am fortunate that Virgin planes now fly all around the world, so at least I can fly in comfort. But the food is pretty good, so that’s not so good [for diet]. [When I travel] I like sticky, jiggly puddings and apple crumbles and lots of unhealthy, nice things. But then my fitness regime is back at home.
Do you have any office fashion tips? I’ve heard about your feeling about ties.
There’s nothing that wrong with Thais, I just prefer Chinese—sorry, trying to be funny!
I don’t know why the tie was ever invented. It’s about one of the few things that Britain has exported successfully and it completely destroyed those lovely robes that the Japanese used to wear, and now everyone looks the same and dresses the same. I often have a pair of scissors in my top pocket to go cutting people’s ties off.
I do think that ties most likely are still inflicted on people because the bosses, they had to wear it for 40 years and when they get into positions of responsibility they’re damned if they’re going to not have the next generation suffer. So ties continue to exist. My lifelong campaign to get rid of the tie has failed miserably.
What would you like to be the hallmark of Virgin’s office culture?
Having people who run our companies and divisions that put people first, who care as much about the switchboard operator—or whatever you call them in America—as the fellow directors or the cleaning ladies. And people who are praising all the staff, not criticizing them. I think it’s just finding people to run companies who genuinely care about people.