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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Branson plans on being aviation's clean fuel pioneer

Virgin founder Richard Branson – a true philanthropist – shares philosophy on giving, hosts charity gala, promotes ecologival ventures

Sandro Contenta, Feature Writer,

Richard Branson insists there's method to his madness.

Sure, he has crash-landed hot air balloons and jumped off a 40-storey building – all in the name of publicizing his Virgin Group business empire. But he says the self-described "mad escapades" have helped amass the kind of phenomenal wealth needed to make a positive difference worldwide.

"If capitalism is not going to be given a bad name, it's up to successful capitalists to make sure that they use that wealth constructively," Branson said in an interview yesterday.

At 57, Branson is turning his thoughts to a legacy beyond having built the largest group of private companies in Europe. Like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two of the world's richest men, Branson has decided to focus part of his energy and fortune on philanthropy.

Last night, he hosted a fundraising gala in Toronto for his charitable organization, Virgin Unite, which helps local groups battle challenges such as poverty, access to health care and global warming. Funds from the event went to support a project dubbed Heaven's Angels. It provides motorcycles to African caregivers, helping them reach communities that are difficult to access.

Another initiative is to set up a "war room" in South Africa to examine hundreds of non-governmental projects across Africa to determine and publicize "best practices," such as the best way to fight malaria.

But the British entrepreneur couldn't help mixing business with philanthropy.

Earlier in the day, he used high-profile magician Criss Angel – in town mainly to perform at the gala – to promote Virgin Mobile's entry next year in the contract-based cellphone business.

Indeed, Branson makes clear that what's good for the environment and social justice is also good for business.

"For customers who come into contact with Virgin, they will view Virgin better if we're using our resources in a positive way than a negative way," he said.

The swashbuckling entrepreneur's rise to riches has been well documented. A dyslexic who dropped out of high school at 16, he launched a magazine for young people that sold 75,000 copies an issue.

He used the money to set up a record company – Virgin, a name that reflected his inexperience in business.

The first artist he signed, Mike Oldfield, produced Tubular Bells, an album that made the record label an overnight success and later became the soundtrack to the movie The Exorcist.

Branson built an empire of more than 250 companies running everything from trains to space travel. In 2006, Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $2.8 billion (U.S.).

Branson, who owns an island in the Caribbean, won't say what that fortune is today.

Virtually all the wealth, he said, is tied up and reinvested in companies he doesn't plan to sell.

"Yes, if I sold everything I would have an embarrassing amount of riches in a bank account, but personally I think that would be almost a sin," he said, sipping a low-fat latte at a King St. W. club.

Once described by a close aide as "ruthlessly capitalist in business but socially communist," Branson said he'd rather put his money to work toward an ideal.

"I think communism is definitely an ideal. It would be wonderful if communism worked, but it's been proven not to work," he said.

"But the idea of everybody being able to have food, and everybody being able to have medical help, and everyone being able to live roughly equal lives, makes sense."

Sir Richard – he was knighted in 2000 – has been criticized by environmentalists for proclaiming global warming the most pressing challenge today, yet running airlines that contribute to it.

Branson said he only became aware of global warming about four years ago.

"By then I owned five airlines in the world, a train company and a space company," he said. "I know that if I sold those companies somebody else would operate them."

Branson said he came up with a better solution by pledging to commit all profits from his Virgin air and train companies over the next decade – an estimated $3 billion (U.S.) – to tackle climate change. The money will go into one of his newer companies, Virgin Fuel, which is researching alternatives to oil-based fuels, such as sugar-based ethanol.

Virgin will partly use "clean fuel" to test-fly a 747 airplane next year, without passengers, Branson said.

"I hope within five years all our planes will be flying on clean fuels, not dirty fuels, so people who own airlines won't have to feel guilty and people who fly on airlines won't have to feel guilty," he said.

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