Now Playing

Knight Moves

This fall, Sir Richard Branson unveils the world’s first Virgin Hotel in Chicago.

Born in Blackheath, London, Sir Richard Branson began his career as a teenager selling records out of a magazine he had founded.

Even by international magnate standards, Sir Richard Branson is a breed apart. The British superentrepreneur is most well known for his Virgin airlines, Virgin Galactic space-tourism endeavor and, looking back, as the founder of Virgin Records. But his Virgin Group has entered and succeeded in hundreds of businesses, from wireless communications to trains to eco-friendly skyscrapers. This fall he unveils the world’s first Virgin Hotel at 203 N. Wabash Ave. We caught up with the brilliant businessman to discuss the hotel, what keeps him pushing ever further, and his entering the Guinness World Records.

Simply: Why hotels, why now and why Chicago?
We already have boutique hotels like Necker Island; small, friendly places. I thought: You know, you got Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia… I didn’t want to deny all of those people traveling on the airlines that same service in a hotel. So we came up with all the ideas; we market-researched it; and people loved it. Then we thought: Let’s test it out on Chicagoans; they’re very discerning people, and if it works in Chicago it can work for the rest of the world. So our very first city hotel will be in Chicago; it’s in a very lovely old building.

How will Virgin Hotels differentiate itself?
The proof will be in the pudding. When someone walks into a Virgin America plane or sees a Virgin spaceport in New Mexico or a Virgin Galactic spaceship, people know design is dear to our hearts. We hope we get the design right, but as I say, we are testing it on you guys, and I’m sure we will be refining it as we go. I’m not allowed to go into too much detail. We hope that we have found all of the miseries of hotel life [and corrected them], and done it with some style and class. I’m not sure whether I am allowed to say, but I think we are planning to have happy hour free at our hotel.

I have a funny happy hour story. Last week I was at Necker Island, and there’s an island next to it that has a pub. I went to the bar, and there were two guys who had been waiting for an hour and a half for happy hour, and they sat next to me. Half an hour later, I sold them two space tickets, a quarter of a million dollars each; it was the most expensive happy hour ever! There is no such thing as a free happy hour in Chicago; if I’m there, people will have to buy space tickets as part of the free service they are getting!

You’ve had hundreds of companies and are constantly branching out. What keeps you motivated?
I love creating things, and the people around me love creating things. People love working for Virgin because the variety of what we do is so great. We like to create the best in class. If we feel things aren’t being done great elsewhere, we’re coming in and trying to do it better. When an organization gets a little bit tired, that’s the time Virgin comes in and creates something that’s fresh and new. Virgin Atlantic is 30 years old this year, and it’s still a great, fun airline to fly, and something we are still proud of.

What mistakes do you most often see executives and CEOs make?
The common mistake is locking themselves off in their ivory towers and thinking a business is the business rather than that the business is the people. What makes an exceptional business is a group of people, and if those people are really proud of the company they are working for, the company will sing. Most of our life is at work, so you have to enjoy it. It shouldn’t be a chore. It’s up to great leaders to make sure that everybody has a blast.

The world is still suffering from the effects of the recession. What needs to happen to make more progress?
We need to help the armies of young entrepreneurs get established because that is where the Virgins of the future will come from. At Virgin, we have a lot of grants for schools of entrepreneurship in Africa, Jamaica. Same in the U.K., where we’re helping thousands of young entrepreneurs with small loans and getting set up, finding mentors for them. The more the government and businesses can do to help others get established, that’s how we can work our way through recessions and create jobs.

I don’t imagine you have much free time, but when you do, how do you relax?
Last week I got [an entry into] Guinness World Records for having three ladies on my back while kitesurfing! I love kitesurfing, and if three ladies are willing to climb onto my back and go kitesurfing with me and break a world record, I’m even happier.