Sir Richard Branson said he fears losing his entire business empire during the pandemic.
The British businessman said he found the media backlash “painful” after the Virgin Group asked the British government for a loan to bail out the company.
Given his personal wealth and home on a Caribbean island, he has been criticized for calling for a bailout when Virgin Atlantic airline ran into trouble.
Sir Richard told the BBC that he has personally lost around £1.5bn during the pandemic.
The struggles to save his business left him “a little depressed” for a couple of months, he said. “I’ve never experienced that before in my life.”
He explained: “We had 50, 60 planes all grounded, and the spas all closed, the hotels all closed. And the worst [case] there would have been 60,000 people on the street”.
The support requested by the company was, he said, “not government gifts, but taking out loans, so the cost to the airline … was not prohibitive.”
However, the government rejected his request for a £500m bailout. A private bailout deal eventually saw Virgin Group inject £200m, with a further £1bn provided by investors and creditors.
“There was a time when I thought we were going to lose everything,” said Sir Richard. “We sold shares in public companies and that was one way we were able to find money.”
In an extensive interview with the BBC’s Amol Rajan, Sir Richard also discussed his past marketing campaigns and publicity stunts, often involving glamorous women, whom he sometimes left behind.
Asked if those stunts now made him wince, he replied: “It would make me wince if I felt that women were uncomfortable.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made anyone feel uncomfortable. Back then, it made them smile… But today, obviously, I think people would feel uncomfortable with something like that.
“So he’s changed and I fully accept that. And I’ve changed along with everyone else.”
In 2021, Sir Richard achieved a lifelong ambition and reached the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic commercial space plane. “It was one of those most extraordinary days, in every aspect of him,” he said.
He defended space exploration as a worthwhile investment when asked whether rocket launches should be a priority for the ultra-wealthy or whether it is compatible with tackling climate change, a cause to which he has devoted much effort and money.
“Communication between people is transforming because of space travel and satellites up there,” he said. “Monitor things like depredation of rainforests and illegal fishing… [there are] all these kinds of benefits that come with space travel.”
However, its satellite rocket launch company Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy in the US last month after failing to secure new investment.
In recent years, Sir Richard has also campaigned to promote awareness of dyslexia, a term rarely used and even less understood when he dropped out of school at 15. He revealed that shortly after being sent to boarding school at the age of seven, he was beaten so badly—”for being stupid”—that he bled.
“It was… pretty awful in those days. And yes, as a dyslexic, I thought I was stupid because they’d never heard of [it]. The word dyslexic did not exist.”
In addition to dyslexia, Sir Richard thinks he probably has attention deficit disorder and has acknowledged that he is easily bored.
At age 72, the businessman still heads the Virgin Group, but admitted to having thoughts about succession planning.
“We have serious discussions as a family about how the company can hopefully transform the lives of thousands of people for years to come and hopefully centuries to come,” he said.
Sir Richard Branson: Amol Rajan Interviews is on the BBC iPlayer