Richard Branson: 'I Don't Deserve to Be Alive Today'

Virgin founder wants to revolutionize U.S. air travel, then go to outer space.

ByKATE SNOW and SUSAN KRISKEY

Oct. 9, 2007 — -- Those who are only vaguely familiar with Richard Branson should listen up -- he says he's going to revolutionize the way Americans fly.

As of today, Branson's Virgin America airline is now operating flights between five American cities.

"This little baby Virgin, the American guy tried to make sure it never started," said Branson. "We've had four years to try to get it off the ground, and today, we're finally on our way.

"I don't know if you've ever flown in an American airline," Branson said. "Well, I suspect it was pretty dismal. It's generally not very good. It's those kind of situations where Virgin likes to go and make a difference."

"Nightline" spent the day with Branson at the Virgin Music Festival, a steamy outdoor concert at a racetrack outside Baltimore, where Branson was greeted like a bigger rock star than the ones on stage.

For some, Branson's influence in today's culture is already well recorded. Many know about Virgin Mobile's cheap cell phones, or the $100,000 he gave to search for little Madeleine McCann. Branson also spoke out when his good friend Steve Fossett went missing in the Nevada desert this summer.

Richard Branson is -- by his own doing -- one of the most visible moguls in the world. But what else makes Branson tick? And how did he amass nearly $4 billion in net worth?

"I still sometimes wake up in the morning, my eyes are closed and think, 'I had the most incredible dream,'" said Branson. "It's reality, and it's too much for one person to have the amount of experience I have."

It was one of the most in-your-face drug-addled punk rock bands that helped Branson build his empire. The Sex Pistols got Branson's record label noticed back in 1977.

That was after he'd already run a student magazine, a mail-order operation and opened some record stores. But signing the Sex Pistols to his Virgin Records label led to more artists. And more artists meant more profits he could invest in new ventures.

In 1984, he launched his airline.

"I was very lucky," Branson said, attributing his success to "the university of life."

It was more than luck. Though he never went to college, Branson had a knack for finding an unfilled niche and launching a business to fill it.

Each new product launched was more outlandish than the last. In 1992, he sold off his Virgin Record company to finance the airline. In 1997, he brought Virgin Trains to life.

Two years later, Virgin Mobile, his first telecommunications company, hit the United Kingdom. The same year, Branson was knighted by the queen.

To be fair, not all of Branson's ventures have succeeded. Virgin Cola, for instance, is a distant memory. As his wealth grew, Branson made plenty of cameo appearances on television, but in 2004, his own reality show tanked in one season. And his Virgin Web site for bridal wear has since dissipated.

Branson's business ventures have always been risky, and his personal adventures were equally dramatic. He broke the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing in a boat. The next year, he was first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon. (He also tried to circle the globe in a balloon but never made it.)

"I certainly think I've run out of my nine lives," Branson admitted, "but I've been definitely born under a lucky star, and somebody has been very kind to me and I've got a lot of thanking to do and I don't deserve to be alive today."

Branson's second wife, Joan, has been with him through all those risks -- the couple has been together for 30 years and married for 17. Much of that time has been spent with their 22-year-old son Sam and 25-year-old daughter Holly on a private island in the British Virgin Islands.It was one of the first pieces of property Branson bought.

When asked how those who know him well might describe him, Branson replied, "I'm a bit of a prankster. Fun. Umm … naughty," he said, laughing.

And how does he respond to critics who say it's all an act?

"I don't think you can go through life acting," he said. "I'm pretty much an open book. I've always taken the approach that you live life once and you must live it to its full. In looking back I've had the most incredible life to date … and I wouldn't swap it for anything. And I ensure you it is a lot of fun."

Branson said he loves people and doesn't mind living his life in the spotlight.

"If you're a famous person and you come upon someone who has maybe never seen a famous person before, you must acknowledge them, and it's better for you and it's much better for them," he said.

And if he lost it all tomorrow, Branson said he'd still have "a very close family and great friends."

"I'd pack the bags and we could all go live in Bali or Indonesia and hang out in the beach and life would just be different," he said. "But I'm not going to let it come crashing down, because … having managed to build what we've built, I think we can achieve a lot more with it and we can make a big difference to people's lives."

The Virgin brand now covers more than 200 companies, with 60,000 employees. But let's face it. Life as a billionaire is just different. Branson has never used an ATM and doesn't surf the Internet.

"I mean, personally, for what I'm doing, it's just not that important," he said, adding that he concerns himself more with the "big picture."

He is a fan of bold ideas -- last year he made a splash by pledging to invest all of Virgin's transportation profits in research on renewable fuels.

"An estimated value of $3 billion over the next 10 years," Branson said.

The cynics said it was a business plan disguised as an earth-friendly donation -- another showy promise, they said, with no guarantee of results. Then earlier this year, he offered a $25 million prize to anyone who can invent a technology to clean up the gases that cause global warming.And this summer, he convinced a group of senior states people -- "the elders," he calls them -- to come together in South Africa as a kind of superhero squad to help solve the world's problems.

"I'm in a position where I can make a difference, and I think if anybody on the globe is in a position where they can make a difference, they shouldn't waste that position," he said. "I like to be a catalyst, and I love to challenge myself and give it a go."

His next project? Virgin Galactic: space travel for the masses. Branson hopes to be rocketing into orbit in the next 18 months.

"My dad will be 91, my mom will be 88, and my son will be about 22, and my daughter will be about 26 … and they all want to come, so it will be a family affair going into space."

It's that adventurous, fun-loving persona he wants the world to see. "I think I have been told I've been crazy since I was quite a young boy," Branson said, but he also acknowledged that space travel aside, his feet are more firmly planted on the ground than ever before.

"I've got the pure adventure side out of me, the 'let's see if we can be the first to cross the Atlantic in a balloon or the Pacific or going around the world, or the fastest by boat,'" he said. "Now that I'm a globally known person and I've got the wealth, I just want to channel it and make a bit of a difference."

As we waded through the crowd, we never once caught him without a smile. Even as he watched bands that his son is much more familiar with perform on stage, the elder Branson seemed like he was having a great time. If it's all an act, it's a pretty convincing one.

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