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By Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Self-made billionaire Sir Richard Branson says “cheers” to Canada and its conservative banks for avoiding a recession for so long.

But the British founder of the Virgin Group brand of companies said the same economic malaise that’s brutalized the economies of the United States and United Kingdom will inevitably grow in Canada.

Branson was in Toronto on Wednesday to deliver a speech at a business luncheon, and he predicted times will get tougher for Canadians, though it may not get quite as bad as it has elsewhere.

“I’ve been through four recessions in my lifetime - this certainly is the worst,” said the 58-year-old Branson.

“It doesn’t seem to have hit Canada in the same way that it’s hit America or the U.K., but sadly, I think it’s more likely than not that it will hit Canada in quite a big way in the next year or two.”

But in an interview with The Canadian Press, he also said he thinks Canada may suffer less than other countries.

“The Canadian banks have been more conservative in their approach, so you don’t have the same sort of banking crisis that you’ve got in the U.K. and America,” Branson said, using an expletive to describe the current state of banking in the United Kingdom.

Branson said he sees growing opportunities to build the Virgin brand in Canada with its line of mobile phone services, radio stations and concerts.

Radio stations in Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver were recently rebranded with the Virgin name to go along with the company’s first outlet in Toronto.

And Virgin hopes to expand its presence on the Canadian concert circuit by taking its all-day festival show to five cities this summer.

Branson said he also has a couple of other ideas for the Canadian market, including offering financial services.

If he were to offer any advice to governments, Branson said they should avoid intervening to save corporations.

“Companies should be like trees,” he said. “If they’re inefficient, they should die and make room for new trees.”

As for Stephen Harper versus Michael Ignatieff, Branson said he hasn’t paid much attention to the political uncertainty in Ottawa and isn’t concerned with the back-and-forth talk of minorities, coalitions and elections.

“From a businessman point of view, as long as we’re operating in a democratically elected country, we’re not too bothered by who it is that’s running the country - as long as they’re basically capable,” Branson said.

“We’ve never got involved in party politics, we’ve just done our thing. … It’s not something that makes a big difference from out point of view.”

Branson said he wouldn’t have asked the federal government for much of anything had he been involved in budget consultations, and is just happy to have won the years-long fight for cellphone number portability in 2007.

“We don’t need government to change any (more) rules,” he said.

“The most important thing was people being able to switch their numbers from one company to another, and that took us a while to win. But when we did, that’s made the biggest difference.”

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