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Sir Richard Branson is the thrill-seeking chairman of the $8 billion Virgin Group, a vast business empire comprising 200 companies in some 30 countries. The flamboyant entrepreneur first went into business for himself at age 15, publishing Student magazine. Virgin Group, which now includes such businesses as air and rail travel, mobile phones, finance, insurance, beverages, hotels, Internet, and modeling ventures, got its start as a mail-order record company on Oxford Street in London.
Since then, Virgin has expanded into a global brand and Branson into a household name as a daredevil businessman who has scaled skyscrapers and crossed the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle in order to promote his company. Indeed, his record-breaking feats such as crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific in a hot-air balloon and breaking the speed record sailing a boat across the Atlantic were as much about Branson's derring-do as they were publicity stunts for Virgin (see CEOs as Chief Fitness Officers).
BusinessWeek Online reporter Stacy Perman recently spoke with Sir Richard -- who just twisted his knee kite-surfing -- by phone from his Caribbean retreat, Necker Island, where the adventurer spends several months of the year relaxing with family and friends. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Is there any difference for you between work and play?
I don't see the difference. I've worked for myself since I was 15 years old, and I don't see it as work. I see it as a fascinating voyage that I've embarked upon. I'm learning every day -- every second of every day. I mix the two very much.
You do a lot of extreme sports (kite-surfing, hot-air ballooning, paragliding, surfing off a single-engine plane), which end up being part of your marketing efforts. What's that about?
I love to try everything. Obviously, a lot of what I do is extreme. I was the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon and [sail] the fastest boat across the Atlantic, too. It helped put Virgin on the map on a global basis. I kite-surf, and last week I went to Canada to launch an extreme-sports team for Virgin Mobil where I kite-surfed, and it got front-page news rather than the back pages.
Sometimes it helps to be able to slide down buildings [to get publicity], and I am willing to go up in spaceships.
What's the craziest thing you've done?
About 15 or 20 years ago I pulled the wrong string when I went skydiving for the first time. I got rid of the parachute rather than opening it. It was not very clever, and I was declared "wally of the decade" by the skydiving federation.
You're constantly coming up with new business ideas. Have any originated from your sports activities or vice versa?
Well, as a result of my ballooning exploits we got involved in starting an airship ballooning company. I started kite-surfing a year ago and just set up a female extreme-sports team in Canada. We'll also start one in America, Britain, and Australia.
In my numerous attempts to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon I've had to be pulled out of the water five times. Maybe that's why I sponsor the ambulance helicopter in London as a thanks for all the times they've rescued me. It was crazy but a tremendous adventure.
Speaking of the near-misses you've had over the years, do you worry how that might affect your business? Is there anything that you won't try?
I do enjoy life enormously. I look at every exploit, and I think about how to protect myself against the downside. For example, if I go down into the sea, will I survive? I do the same with business decisions. I think, if this fails, is it going to knock me out, will it be catastrophic for my business or my personal life?
I suspect as I get older I've become slightly more conservative. I now have 50,000 people working for Virgin. I won't do something now if I don't think I won't come home from it. Having said that, I still do reasonably extreme sports.
What's up next?
Well, the most exciting thing is the space travel company [Virgin Galactic]. We're building five ships to be ready in 2 years. Myself and my family will be flying, and we hope thousands will enjoy the experience as well. We'll send people up to space for a three-hour trip. They will be astronauts and experience weightlessness, and they will see the earth is round.
We're giving people the opportunity to experience space without the inherent risks of NASA. Our technology is 30 years younger than NASA, and we fly suborbital so we don't have the same heat buildup. It's much safer.
I'll be the first to fly in the new spaceship. It's an important statement for Virgin Galactic. And in fact if I wasn't willing to, people would understandably wonder why not. It's important to be willing do things yourself. And it's quite fun.
Have you always been an active sports enthusiast?
Yes, I always played a lot of sports in school like football, cricket, rugby, and a whole mixture of sports. Subsequently tennis has become my No. 1 passion, but I recently discovered kite-surfing. It's a wonderful way of getting out to sea and away from the phones, and an extremely good way of keeping fit. It's an extreme sport, but it's evolving and becoming safer and safer.
Do you consider yourself an adventurer first or a businessman?
I am an adventurer/businessman. Business is taking calculated risks, you are an adventurer. You're going to a place no one has gone before and doing it differently. Being an adventurer is testing your limits. And in business you're trying to achieve things no one else has done. The two overlap considerably. When I plan an adventure, it's similar to planning for a business.