Richard Branson: lunatic or genius?

Who is he?

212th richest person in the world and founder of the Virgin Group that combines a dazzling and unlikely array of over 400 individual companies including radio stations, financial services consultancies, airlines, wine stores, telecommunications providers, animation studios and a spaceport.

His most recent presence in the international media has come thanks to Virgin Oceanic‘s unveiling of a “flying” submarine designed to explore 5 of the lowest points on the earth’s surface, first among them the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, which at a depth of 11,033m is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Even more extraordinary is that Branson himself will pilot the craft on its second mission to the Puerto Rico trench in the Atlantic Ocean, 8,605m deep and never before explored.

According to this article in The Age, Branson has said that, “With space long ago reached by man, and commercial spaceflight tantalisingly close, the last great challenge for humans is to reach and explore the depths of our planet’s oceans.”

What do we think?

In the past, we have dismissed Branson as a narcissistic entrepreneur with plenty of belief in money but little interest in the products and services his many companies provide. After all, how could he possibly be the best person to sell us soft drinks alongside mobile phones, plane tickets and bridal wear?

It is true that Branson has been a central and somewhat ignominious force in replacing the traditional purchase of locally-made goods with the modern and wholly irresponsible consumption of globalised brands. However, the submarine, together with Virgin Galactic‘s very exciting suborbital space flights and a closer inspection of some of Branson’s quirkier ventures, have shed new light on his intentions.

It now seems clear to us that Branson is not interested in hoarding his vast wealth, he wants to spend it. And he isn’t satisfied with simply writing cheques to other people’s charities, he wants to be in on the action – Virgin Green Fund, for instance, is a venture capital firm investing in petroleum alternatives and Virgin Health Bank is a facility enabling parents to store their baby’s stem cells. We may not like the way the word Virgin has been unceremoniously tacked onto every product from flowers to music festivals, but if Branson thinks it would be pretty cool to hop into a submarine destined for the deepest reaches of our planet’s crust, we think he’s exactly the sort of person to make it happen.

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