Sir Richard Branson has come a long way since starting his first business venture at age 16. The now 61-year-old Branson’s current business portfolio (with more than 400 companies and a net worth of $4.2 billion) includes media, telecommunications, airlines and even space travel. On Wednesday, Branson visited Philadelphia to coincide with the launch of Virgin America’s airline service flying direct from Philadelphia to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The first flight arriving Wednesday from Los Angeles was greeted with a “Tailgate on the Tarmac” that included Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, celebrities like Amber Rose and Seth Green, along with star Glenn Howerton and the “Green Man” from the hit FX show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
NBC10's Lou Dubois sat down for eight minutes with Branson to talk about visiting Philadelphia, what’s piquing his musical interests, items he can’t imagine traveling without, and the best advice he’s ever given and received. He also addresses the green man.
NBC10: What’s your background with Philadelphia?
I’m very excited to be here. The first time I came here is when I was a teenager when I was exporting records to Philadelphia, and I ended up in a slightly more tricky part of town by mistake. But it’s great to be here.
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NBC10: Why bring Virgin America to Philly?
On Most of the routes that Virgin America flies, we have four or five competitors. Bizarrely, for a marketplace like Philly to LA or San Francisco to only have one direct flight, and to be dominated by one carrier, was interesting. When we looked into it, the particular carrier that dominated it (US Airways) is not maybe the best quality of carriers. You know, it’s one of those big American carriers, the staff is not really given the tools to do a great job, and the price of the fares was incredibly high.
So we thought the Philly market was open to some real competition. And even since we’ve announced that we were coming here, fares have come down. So the ability for people to have a choice and go direct to San Francisco and LA every day is what we’re looking at.
NBC10: How would you briefly describe Virgin to people who have not flown the airline?
I know that when they experience the Virgin plane, they’ll recognize every single little detail is right. Instead of sitting on a long plane ride with no entertainment, which they currently have to do, they can watch the latest Philly match on the plane, watch whatever is on television, the latest films, talk to people in other seats on the screen and order their food on the screens. That and the fact that they’re sitting in very comfortable seats with a good crew and comfortable lighting is the draw. And they won’t be paying as much as they’ve done in the past.
NBC10: For someone who travels as much as you, what are three things you can’t get on a plane without?
I need a notebook because I like to get out and talk to my staff, to passengers and to get feedback and make sure that all the little details are right on every flight. That to me is the way you keep your product as the best quality airline in the sky. I can’t live without my Blackberry or iPad, simply because that is my office. I don’t sit in my office. I get out there, I’m on the move and so I need to be connected. And I can’t really travel without my secretary. She helps to make sure that everything ticks and we’ve got 400 companies to run around the world so I need to keep in touch.
NBC10: You founded a record business at age 16 and launched the Virgin Records label back in 1972. What music are you listening to today?
I like a lot of the old music and some newer music, so bands like The Killers I love. I love reggae so I keep in touch with the newer reggae bands coming up from Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands. Since Bob Marley has died, there have been lots of younger bands. And like I said, a lot of older music. Peter Gabriel I still love. I’m not as in touch as when we were building a great record label, but I keep in touch.
NBC10: What was the best advice you were ever given and what’s the best advice you’ve given out?
The best advice I was ever given is from my mum who told me if I ever criticized somebody to maybe stand in front of the mirror and see if it reflected badly on me. And the best advice I’ve ever given is an extension of that, and that is just to tell the people who work at Virgin to go out there and look for the best in people. Praise, praise, don’t criticize and you’ll get the best people. If you treat people like a flower and you water a flower to help it grow, do the same with people and people will flourish just like the flower.
NBC10: Final question: What was it like hanging out with the green man from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia here today?
I thought it was a really good idea. I think I might dress up like that in the future myself so every time I launch a new airline I can actually be on Necker island (Branson’s private island in the Caribbean) sipping a drink. I can be everywhere at once. He said that was the first day he had done it, so I’ll just have to find people with a beard and a moustache. No, I’m joking obviously. I enjoy it too much so I would never do that.