Sir Richard Branson on solving the world's tough problems

Sir Richard Branson.

Jeremy Hobson: Billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson the chairman of Virgin Group was in Washington yesterday for a forum hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on how businesses can help solve the world's problems. After he spoke at the summit, Branson sat down for an interview with the Marketplace Morning Report and told us he wants to, "Screw business and usual."

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; 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 tackle them. And I think that if businesses do that, we can help social workers, help politicians get on top of the problems of the world. 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, 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 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. So, 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; 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: You run a private train network in the U.K. And I want to ask you -- because here in this country, people have had a really hard time making money; the Amtrak system has had a difficult time. 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. And we have looked at like Los Angeles to Vegas, and Miami to the Keys, and one or two other places. But basically, the way we transformed a chunk of Britain's rail network was, we took over run down nationally run pieces of rail and we've doubled the number of passengers in the last six years. So if you offer people a decent service, if you give them you know Internet access, 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: Coming up, we'll continue our interview with Richard Branson and ask him if a thrill-seeking, globe-trotting billionaire can get bored with everyday life.

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Hobson: Ok now let's get back to our interview with Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group. Back in the 70s, Branson started his career with a mail-order record business that later morphed into Virgin Music and turned him into a billionaire. I asked him if that kind of success story is still possible.

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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