Sir Richard Branson loves what he does and can’t resist a new challenge. His attitude is to jump right in with an idea and take risks.
With the Virgin Group diversified into more than 300 different areas of business, that attitude has served him well. But Branson said he never wanted to be an entrepreneur.
“That act of being an entrepreneur, the projects that I’ve launched, is so I can pay the bills at the end of the year and keep people in employment to actually do the things I enjoy doing,” Branson said. “I just enjoy doing a lot, and one thing has led on to another.”
When he started Virgin more than 25 years ago, Branson didn’t know it would grow to be a multibillion-dollar global brand. He started out with an idea, taking the leap and finding good people to work with to create his brand, built one idea at a time.
Q: Can you talk about continual diversification in evolution and the changes Virgin Records has gone through?
In the early days, we got heavily criticized. … There were lots of journalists who talked about stretching the brand too far when the Branson’s balloon burst, which actually burst on a number of different occasions. The sort of conventional wisdom in business schools was (to) specialize in one area, but it’s just not in my nature. And as it turned out, it was very fortunate because the record business, our first business, is struggling. It’s very lucky that we went into mobile phones and other businesses, (that’s why we) are doing extremely well today.
Q: Not all your businesses are in industries in which the industry is doing well, how do you find a way to exceed peers?
When we started in the airline business 25 years ago, we had one airline, one plane, and we were competing with 15 very big airlines. And of those 15, 14 have gone bankrupt, all of the American carriers, TWA, Pan Am, People’s Express, you name it. I think the reason we survived (was that) we were a much smaller airline, but we made sure that we were the best airline out there.
We always had a lot of fun. British Airways was much bigger than us, and every time that we could pull their tails we would do so. … Virgin also believes in glamour. Why shouldn’t flying be glamorous and fun again? We just ran an advertisement about three months ago to celebrate our 25th anniversary.
If you are taking on a much bigger operation like British Airways, (and) most people who start a business from scratch are taking on much bigger corporations, you have the advantage that you are smaller, you are more nimble, you can move quicker, you can make sure that if you are going to change your business class seats you can change it far faster than they can. If you’ve got to put standup bars on your planes, you can do it much quicker than they can. As long as you use your tactful advantages well, you can survive.
We wanted to be the first airline with flatbeds in them (and) they actually found out what we were up to. A few months before our beds went on, they came out with a slightly better bed. It cost us $100 million. We chucked out all of those beds within 12 months and came in with something that we knew would stick. But for them to change again, it would have cost them $1 billion, (so) they didn’t.
If you make a mistake, you’ve got to acknowledge it quickly. But you’ve got to run each of your companies as if you own them personally, as if it were a private restaurant. If I’m on a plane and any of our chief executives are on planes, I’ll make sure that I get out and meet the 400 passengers on the plane, make sure that I spend time with all the staff, make sure I have a notebook in my pocket and write all the points down.
Listening is absolutely critical. And I think as the managing director or chairman of a company or the manager of a division of a company, with BlackBerry’s and phones, you don’t need to get stuck behind a desk. You can just get out and experience your businesses, experience your competitors experiences, and all the time just be working hard to improve on them, all the time motivating your staff. …
If I’m in a town, I’ll try to make sure I take all the staff out on the town in the evenings. Because we’ll be drinking a little, I’ll make sure that the notebook is in my pocket, so that when I scribble at the bar something that they have to tell me I can get ahead and do it the next day. I think it’s important to let your hair down with the team.
Q: How do you stay fresh? How do you drive your people to keep that spirit and sort of mirror your spirit?
I think it does come from the top down. If you put the wrong person in any of your companies, you can destroy a company very quickly. That person has got to do lots of things right. Bringing (a) so-called expert from outside into a company, above people who feel that they are good enough for the job, can be very demoralizing. So we try to promote from within.
We try to make sure that a switchboard operator is not always a switchboard operator, if they are good enough to move on up. A cleaning lady is not always a cleaning lady. The cleaning lady at our recording studio division ended up running the recording studio division. … You’ve got to just find people who are really good at dealing with people, motivating people, caring for people, looking for the best in people. (Use) lots and lots of praise, criticism should not be part of their makeup, and inspire people to really.