An Unlikely Encounter with Sir Richard Branson

Do you remember as a child being prompted with the question, “Who do you most admire?” Apart from my parents, naturally, my role model was Sir Richard Branson, British billionaire, entrepreneur and business mogul who in the 1970s founded the Virgin Group. Today Virgin controls more than 400 companies in various fields.

In some way or another, we’ve all been touched by Virgin. I’ll start. Every day I tune in to Virgin Radio here in Beirut, which launched a good decade ago and has easily led its peers in music and content programming. I have flown on Virgin Atlantic (and Virgin America) numerously. We often shop for our electronics needs at Virgin Megastore, which boasts a network of branches throughout Lebanon.

Arguably, most people know of Sir Richard, perhaps through one of his many books. My friend once mailed me “Screw It, Let’s Do It” (2006), which he picked up at an airport, leafed through ravenously on his flight, and was convinced I’d appreciate. I did. And I have hung on to it over the years, awe-inspired by the creative entrepreneurial juices that emboldened Branson from a young age.

But never did I ever expect to meet him in person and entertain a conversation with him! Allow me to set the scene.

On Monday, September 5, 2022, my kids and I had just stepped off a 10-hour transatlantic flight from Los Angeles to London, where we were connecting to the second leg of our trip, destined for Beirut. We were making our way through the labyrinthine halls of Heathrow airport and had just passed through the security check on our way to the gate.

Standing on a horizontal escalator (or conveyor belt, as I like to refer to them), I immediately recognized Sir Richard walking to the side on a carpeted floor, with only a tennis bag and tennis racket slung over his shoulder. He was not flanked by any security attachment or throngs of fans as one might expect. In fact, he was striding ever so calmly, accompanied by one Virgin Atlantic team member and his wife, a few steps behind. As the moving walkway aligned us, I confidently called out, “Sir Richard, how are you?”

Continuing to walk, he turned to look my way, smiled and reciprocated the pleasantries. I had one child on either side of me, firmly clasped in either hand. I mentioned to him that we just got off a Virgin Atlantic flight from LA and were connecting to Beirut. He smiled fondly, inquiring as to whether “they treated us well on board?” Sure, I had a few comments and suggestions, but one has to be realistic and sensible: this wasn’t a strategic think tank session. I had to keep it short and sweet before my seconds ran out. “Yes, indeed,” I replied, “everything was wonderful.”

The moving sidewalk ended, so my kids and I stepped off. At that instant, I seized the opportunity to request a picture with Sir Richard. Not of me, of course, but of my two boys next to the magnate. He happily agreed and in a subtle gesture of modesty, stooped to be at their level for the photo. They had no idea who they were posing with, but one day they will cherish that priceless snapshot.

Sir Richard Branson paused a moment to take a photo with Stephen (center) and Alex at London Heathrow

We were walking toward our gate to Beirut while Sir Richard headed to his, destined for Bridgetown

A few steps later, we arrived to his gate, which was Bridgetown (in Barbados, as I later learned). We exchanged goodbyes and went our separate ways as I floated on a cloud through the remaining stretch to our gate.

A deluge of thoughts flooded my mind. First, how incredible is this businessman who opts to fly commercially when he could be zipping around the world in a private jet? And even then, rather than arrange for a private golf cart to shuttle him to his gate, he walks and subjects himself to the headache-inducing airport experience like the rest of us run-of-the-mill passengers?

Sir Richard in reality is exactly who I’d envisioned he'd be all these years: approachable, friendly, genuine, down-to-earth (in contrast to his space enterprise Virgin Galactic!). Someone who doesn’t exploit his fame to bypass the rules society is governed by. Someone who, as a savvy businessman, understands the imperative to see things through the customer’s eyes, so he walks in their shoes on a daily basis.

I remember when I finished grad school and was seriously pondering which companies I’d be keen on working for, Virgin was always at the forefront of my mind. Admittedly I knew I wouldn’t be rubbing shoulders with Sir Richard himself, but it seemed readily apparent that the company fabric and culture were a reflection of his own spirit. I never did apply, because life took me in a different direction. But I still dream of working alongside someone who is so passionately devoted to furthering the human race and whose faultless reputation few can hold a candle to.

Sir Richard, if you’re reading this (I know, I know, that wish is far-fetched!), it was an indescribable honor meeting you, and I hope against hope that our paths cross again.

An unforgettable moment that I will cherish a lifetime

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