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Sir Richard Branson: The full interview

Virgin Group LTD Chairman Richard Branson speaks to the first Global Impact Economy Forum in the Loy Henderson Auditorium of the State Department April 26, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Jeremy Hobson: Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group joins us now from Washington, good morning.

Richard Branson: Good morning, nice to talk to you.

Hobson: Well let's start with what you're doing in Washington, you want to "screw business as usual." What do you mean by that?

Branson: Well, I wrote a book which basically is trying to get business leaders all over the world to not just think of how we can make lots of money -- which is fine; and not just to think about how our business can make a difference in other people's lives -- which is also fine; but to take some of the either major problems of the world or some of the local problems of the world -- depending on the size of the business -- and get out there and try to tackle them.

And I think that if businesses do that, particularly business leaders that have maybe got entrepreneurial skills, that we can help social workers, help politicians get on top of the problems of the world.

Hobson: Well what is it that businesses can do that governments cannot do?

Branson: I think that business leaders -- I mean if you say take myself, I've had 40 years of being an entrepreneur, of looking at entrepreneurial ways of doing things. So, for instance, you know say 10 years ago decided, okay, why shouldn't we try to build a spaceship and let's find whether we can find engineers who can build a spaceship, can we build a motherport -- so thinking quite big.

So when it comes to problems like conflict resolution issues in the world, we sat back and thought: why do we still have conflicts in the world? Can we just rely on governments to stop conflicts? Maybe people like Nelson Mandela or Kofi Annan or Archbishop Tutu or President Carter -- these wonderful ex-statesmen -- if we put them together as a group, they could go in and resolve conflicts.

You know, we can run it like we run a business, but with say, 12 wonderful men and women. And that's what we did -- we formed a group of wonderful elders who go into conflict regions and have managed to knock heads together and you know stop some conflicts. So it's just coming up with ideas which are not just you know, let's make a lot more money by creating a new business; but maybe let's set up an organization to tackle conflicts or to tackle global warming or to tackle diseases in Africa.

Hobson: Just thinking outside the box is what you're saying.

Branson: Yeah, I've always tried to avoid the word "thinking outside the box" -- I don't know why -- but yes, in a nutshell. Just trying to come up with a different, new approach to things.

With global warming, there are some in America who do not believe the world has a problem. There are others around the world who believe that you know man is creating a problem with global warming. But whichever way you believe it is wise, as an insurance policy, to try to get on top of the problem of the fact that oil is running out. We believe the carbon is damaging the world, and therefore let's work with the 25 sectors, let's set up a carbon warroom to try to come up with a way of reducing the carbon output of major companies, but at the same time, trying not to damage them as businesses. So come up with imaginative ways of dealing with the issue.

Hobson: Well let me ask you about that because climate change is obviously one of the issues that's most important to you. But you also run an airline business -- which I think some people will look at that and say: how can that be? Aren't airlines one of the biggest problems when in comes to climate change?

Branson: Airlines certainly pollute and therefore through the carbon warroom, one of the areas that we've got as top priority is to try to come up with alternative fuels that do not pollute. And also all the profits that the Virgin Group take from Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, or from Virgin Australia, we invest in trying to come up with alternative fuels.

You know we've had some major breakthroughs -- you know algae based fuels, isobutinol based fuels, and also a way of turning the rubbish that comes out of aluminium plants into jet aviation fuels. So I think, turn the clock forward a few years, the aviation industry hopefully will be one of the cleanest industries in the world, rather than a dirty industry.

Hobson: All the profits that are coming in go to that?

Branson: Every penny that the Virgin Group take out of those three airlines, we invest in that area. Now, it's not on a charity basis. I mean obviously, if we can be powering our planes with clean fuels, we'll have a competitor jet aviation fuel; we will hopefully not be taxed by countries because we'll be running on clean fuels and therefore hopefully the ticket price will be less; and hopefully more people will travel on us. And that's really what "screw business as usual" is all about. Try to do things for the right reasons, but also try to make sure that you can pay the bills at the end of the year.

Hobson: Well, but isn't being a jerk a key trait of a lot of business people? I'm not saying that's something that you do. But you're saying people should do things for the right reasons -- there are a lot of people who've made a lot of money not thinking that way.

Branson: I think that being a business a leader that treads all over people to get to the top -- the sort of stereotype of a business leader -- is actually not the way I think to become a successful business leader. If you run your business fairly; if you treat people well; if you try to move your business into areas that are making a real positive difference to other peoples lives; I think you'll A. have much pleasant life, but B. I think you'll have a much more successful business.

You know I think if the people who work for a business are proud of the business they work for, they'll work that much harder, and therefore, I think turning your business into a real force for good is good business sense as well.

Hobson: I want to ask you about something that you're involved with -- you run a private train network in the United Kingdom. And in this country, people have had so much trouble trying to get the train system to operate profitably, or at least not with a huge public subsidy. How do you do that? How do you make money with trains? And are you willing to come over here and start a private network in the U.S.?

Branson: If invited, we'd love to come to the U.S. and see if we can help on the rail front. And we have looked at like Los Angeles to Vegas, and Miami to the Keys, and one or two other places -- so we will explore ideas. The way we transformed a chunk of Britain's rail network was, we took over run down nationally run pieces of rail up the West Coast of Britain and we put brand new trains on it. We got staff working in those trains that loved their job and were proud of the difference they were making. And we've doubled the number of passengers in the last six years, from 15 million people traveling on the trains to 32 million. And I think we'll get up to something like 45 million over the next handful of years.

So if you offer people a decent service, if you give them you know Internet access, if their phones are not cut off on the trains, you know if you have plugs where they can plug in their computers, and if you have a smiling, cheerful staff; and if you can travel really quickly, then you can make a success out of the rail business.

Hobson: So I guess I shouldn't ask you what you think of Amtrak.

Branson: I think it's got a little way to go.

Hobson: All right let me ask you this, you do biz in both the U.S. and Europe, they're two places with very different economic circumstances right now. Why do you think that is? Is there something different about the poeple in both places? Or what is it?

Branson: Well look, both continents suffered form overspending, and got themselves into horrible debt. And I think both continents are doing their best to get out of it. America's approach has been to try to stimulate the economy -- you know to rescue ailing companies. And it looks like that may be working.

Europe has tried a different approach; some countries in Europe have tried a different approach than other countries. The jury's still out as to whether it's going to work or not. I'm an optimist and hopeful that it will work but I think some countries in Europe -- they've got so much debt, it's going to take a few years.

Hobson: What do you make of the Obama administration's handling of the economy in this country?

Branson: They were given the worst deck of cards since 1929, and I think they rescued America going into a 1929 crash. The economy seems to be pulling out. I'm sure there are little bits and pieces anyone would have done differently, but I think by and large they made some big decisions that were necessary like rescuing the car industry, and rescuing the banks -- which if they hadn't done, I think we would've seen a 1929 crash. So I think they moved quickly and got on top of the problem.

Hobson: Finally, let me ask you, you started from very little -- a mail order record business back in the 70s, you're now a billionaire -- do you think it's harder these days to achieve that kind of success?

Branson: I don't think it's harder to achieve success today than it was when we started. If you have an idea that's going to make a big difference to people's lives, and other people are not doing it, you know, just say "screw it," do it and get on with it, and give it a go. Even if you fall flat on your face, you'll learn so much from it and have a lot of fun. And then you can pick yourself up and try again. I think especially with the Internet, there's just so many opportunities out there today.

Hobson: Do you ever get bored with everyday life after all the thrills that you've had?

Branson: I think I'd be a very, very, very sad person if I ever said I got bored with everyday life. I have the richest, most fascinating experience -- learning every single minute of every single day and loving every minute of it.

Hobson: Sir Richard Branson is chairman of the Virgin Group. Thanks so much, it's a pleasure to have you.

Branson: Pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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