The London Business Forum hosted a special event in early october celebrating the stellar entrepreneurial career of Sir Richard Branson.
The discussion, Branson on Business hosted by Jeff Grout Sir Richard, or plain Richard as he prefers, took part in an interview and audience Q&A, revealing the secrets of his business success, the importance of luck and why Virgin will always be the underdog.
Richard kicked off with a brief history on the founding of Virgin Atlantic in 1984, he was 26 and had heard Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, he was desperate to find Mike a record deal but found no takers. So he launched his own record label, Virgin, and put the album out himself.
Its triumph on both sides of the Atlantic secured the label’s future and set Richard on the road to greater business success. An example, he says of the importance of luck in his life story.
In 1984, unable to catch a flight out of the US because of industry bureaucracy, he hired a plane of his own and filled it with stranded fellow passengers. Upon arrival, a fellow passenger advised that he just might have a future in the industry if he could improve the flight experience, and the very next day, Richard contacted Boeing to loan a 747. The idea was to create competition in a sector dominated by British Airways. 31 years later, Virgin Atlantic has over 200 planes with Boeing and is one of the premier airlines in the world.
The essence of the Virgin brand
Virgin, to Richard, is about empowering people to make their own decisions. The company is made up of small parts, and each has an equally vital role to play in the quest to provide the best possible service to customers. Whenever he travels on Virgin Atlantic, Richard makes it a priority to speak to passengers and staff. It is his principle belief that a good leader listens at all times, but then deal with the issues at hand promptly. A good leader never stops learning, and never pushes his own views.
Richard vs. Goliath
Unlike Coca-Cola, Microsoft or Google, Virgin is not synonymous with just one product, but has sought a place in music, airlines, rail, mobile phones and drinks, and the aim is always to try and reinvent and improve on what has gone before. Despite its successes, Richard maintains that within every field, Virgin has been the challenger – up against NASA in space or BA in the air. He maintains it is more fun being David, “pulling at the coat tails of Goliath”.
His aim is to make people smile and have some fun along the way. To him, Virgin has a sexiness that the likes of BA can never hope to match.
Richard is a big admirer of Tesla founder Elon Musk, seeing him as a “young me”. What interests him about Musk, is not only the extraordinary products he is putting out, but the fact that just four or five years ago, Musk was days away from bankruptcy. The line between success and failure is fine, but it is important for wannabe business people to keep trying until they succeed. Richard believes it is a great time to be an entrepreneur and has tried to give back with the launch of the Virgin Start-up Loan. The scheme provides mentors to anyone with a business idea, to provide advice and practical support. There are currently 800 people working on exciting ideas thanks to the backing of the scheme.
For anyone looking to build a career in business, Richard offers this mantra, “keep trying things, keep trying things, keep trying things”. He insists that it isn’t always necessary to listen to your accountant, adding that had he done so, Virgin Atlantic wouldn’t be here today. He is keen to point out that not every product launched or project undertaken will be a success. Richard believes that set-backs are very much part of the journey, and that risk should be accepted.
It is important also to embrace the art of delegation as there is real danger in trying to do everything oneself. Richard always seeks to surround himself with someone better than himself at the “day-to-day stuff”. He advises any business heads to move away from the office to allow their staff to get on with matters at hand.
For Richard, the Lord Sugar, Donald Trump, ‘You’re fired!’ approach to business is the opposite of what a company should aspire to. He generally sees business a family. You wouldn’t “fire your mother, brother or sister”.
As a leading business figure for nearly 50 years, Richard is conscious that to some he is regarded as a role model. He believes strongly that it is important that he shares what he has learned over that time. To that end he believes mentoring is both important and helpful, and tries to offer this wherever he can.
Ultimately, he sees himself as a “lad of the 60s, out there, trying”. Richard estimates he spends 90% of his time working on Virgin’s not-for-profit schemes, under the Virgin Unite banner, tackling issues ranging from prison reform and conservation to the environment. In summary, Richard insists he has achieved everything that he set out to achieve. His 16-year-old self would be very pleased with the life his 65-year-oldself has lived – “I’ve had a blast. But with great wealth comes great responsibility. I’m in a position to make a difference, and I can’t waste it.”
By Ronan George, Media Executive, Gorkana