Richard Branson is always reaching for something, whether it's setting records in stratospheric balloon flights or racing across the Atlantic — pursuits that have nearly killed him, more than once.
"There were a number of occasions where, you know, I shouldn't have come back and I came back once to a full-page ad by Virgin Atlantic saying, 'You know, look Richard, we have an airline, why don't you use it?'" he told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.
But Branson has never done things the conventional way. He is usually striving for something just beyond his grasp — and, win or lose, he always comes up smiling.
Now he has another flag to plant. On Aug. 8, Branson's newest company, Virgin America, takes to the skies over the United States.
But his latest venture may be his most audacious. On July 18 — his and Nelson Mandela's shared birthday — they announced the formation of a Council of Elders, a group of seasoned world leaders who literally will try to solve the world's problems.
"You only live once," he said. "You might as well throw yourself into life and enjoy it."
His brands, Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines, Virgin everything — have made Branson a billionaire. He lives on his own island — Necker Island, on the eastern edge of the British Virgin Islands — where he has taken the good life and re-imagined it his way.
"The Atlantic's this way, the Caribbean's that way, we're surrounded by this beautiful reef the whole way round the island," he said.
Necker Island is both paradise and profit center. When Sir Richard isn't here, he rents the place out for $47,000 a night. It's a paradise built by pop music. Branson likes to say that every time Virgin Records has a hit, he would build something and say the artist paid for it.
"Boy George paid for the grounds, and Johnny Rotten paid for that … and Janet Jackson planted that tree," he said
These days, at age 57, Branson's preoccupations seem to have more to do with saving the world than conquering it. Being in the airline and train business, Branson says he has helped contribute to environmental degradation. But now he hopes to help repair the world.
"For a while, I hoped the skeptics were right. But I read a lot, and met a lot of scientists, and realized the world had a real problem," Branson said.
He bought the island right next door to Necker, and there he plans to build the world's best eco-tourism resort. He is offering a $25 million prize for anyone who comes up with an invention that can rid the atmosphere of carbon gases, and he has pledged to spend all the profits from his airlines — that's $3 billion or so — to develop earth-friendly alternative fuels. But it's not all about being altruistic.
"We've never said there is a charitable, you know, motive. I mean, you take on the oil companies and the coal companies as a charity, you're going to remain a charity and you're gonna disappear," he said. "What we're hoping to do is actually come up with an alternative fuel that will shake the very foundations of the oil companies and shake the foundations of the coal companies — because if we don't shake their foundations, the world could potentially be doomed."
The story of Branson's journey from dyslexic high school dropout to one of the richest, most successful men in the world is well known in his native Great Britain. He has been voted one of history' 100 greatest Britons and one of 100 people the British most love to hate. When he was just a teenager, his school headmaster said he would either become a multimillionaire or go to prison.
First came a magazine called Student, then a discount record business that eventually turned into a record label. The first release was "Tubular Bells," by a shy, unknown musician named Mike Oldfield.
"It was literally, no one wanted it," Branson said.
"Tubular Bells," the record no one wanted, became the theme for "The Exorcist" and sold 5 million copies. Branson was on his way with a country estate and a houseboat on the Thames.
In 1984, Branson made his biggest reach to date — into the sky and over to America. Virgin Atlantic would compete with TWA, Pan Am, and British Airways.
"I love to go after giants," Branson said. "I mean, that's what's the most fun, you know. It's exciting to see whether you could go in there and make a real difference and create something that, you know, why didn't those giants do that before? You know, why has it taken, you know, upstart Virgin to shake up this industry?"
But the success of Virgin Atlantic cost Branson dearly. At one point he had to sell his record company.
"It was tough selling the record company; it was in the thick of British Airways trying to put us out of business," he said. "We needed resources to protect the airline, yet the record company was my baby. We had just signed the Rolling Stones. I just signed Janet Jackson. We had Genesis. We had Peter Gabriel. We had wonderful bands and we had a wonderful group of staff. I remember that morning, I got this check for a $1 billion, which is a lot of money in those days, and a lot of money today. … I was running down the street with $1 billion in my pocket and I was crying. I had tears streaming down my face."
Branson has launched a couple of hundred companies, but none has been as successful as Virgin Atlantic.
"I think that the Virgin Brides was perhaps our worst idea," he said. "The problem was we just couldn't find the market. The launch was brilliant. It had to shave my beard and moustache off. I put on my best lipstick. I mean, I'm sure their might have been one little sector of the world which that would have actually appealed to. And we might have sold a lot of dresses."
Branson's business philosophy is simple. It's even the title of his book: "Screw It, Let's Do It." Want to go to outer space? Branson is already building the vehicle — and selling tickets for $200,000 apiece. Branson himself plans be the first to blast off, along with his two grown children and his aging-but-adventurous, parents. Joan, his infinitely patient wife and the mother of his children, has chosen to stay on the ground.
"My dad will be 91 when we go into space and my mother nearly 89," Branson said. "And you know, they'll have the most incredible trip, something to remember for the rest of their lives, and if there's an afterlife, they'll remember it in the afterlife, too."
Branson has taken the improbable and made it into a business model: Have fun and win while your competitors struggle and suffer.
"I certainly don't feel chosen, but I feel extremely grateful," he said. "I feel I'm in a position where I can make a difference, and I'm not going to waste that position I find myself in."