Dustin S. Klein
Over the past few months I’ve informally polled a few dozen business executives and asked the same question: How is your year going?
A whopping majority — all but one — has reported that his or her organization is having either a record or near-record year. Sales are rising, and they can barely keep up with demand.
This matches a recent Robert Half Professional Employment Report, which found that 37 percent of respondents were very confident in their organizations’ growth prospects, up 16 points from a similar survey in the third quarter.
But my next question causes the disconnect: How many new hires have you made?
Around half say they’re adding staff as fast as they can. The others, however, fall into two groups: those that are trying to stress the system to see how much more work their existing team can handle, and the others who say they’re unable to find enough candidates that have the right skill set.
Politics aside, this issue won’t be resolved at the polls next month. Rather, the heavy burden to resolve it falls on us.
Job growth has always been a lagging indicator in the nation’s overall economic health rather than a leading indicator — economic growth happens first, and then the jobs come. But this time around, we have learned how to do more with less.
Part of it is a visceral aftereffect of the Great Recession. We’re wary about staffing up at the first sign of sales growth. But part of it is structural — we have re-evaluated personnel approaches, relying more on contract work, specialization and greater efficiencies.
Further, when we do add staff, many of us have trouble finding skilled workers to fill the jobs we actually need to fill. We’ve learned — although we probably already knew — that we haven’t been properly training people for the jobs of tomorrow.
It is critical that we think about tomorrow’s workforce differently than we have thought about the workforce we have today — or had yesterday.
We need to forge stronger partnerships with high schools, colleges and universities and work together to develop more relevant training programs and internships that provide on-the-job opportunities for students and employers so that we can better match skills and needs.
If we don’t change our paradigm on the workforce, it won’t matter how great demand is for our products and services because we won’t be able to staff our companies with the people we need to deliver.
Dustin Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business Network Inc.
It used to be that in traditional business settings, innovation was a byproduct of change. These days, however, the equation is inverted and now innovation drives change.
What this means is that there has been a paradigm shift in how organizations need to approach — and view — those two dynamics. Leaders can no longer wait for something to change, such as the business climate, supply and demand factors or market pressures, before they take steps to invest in innovation. And, by embracing this shift, it will result in a quicker ability to effectively compete.
But there’s another byproduct of this new paradigm — while it is possible to use proactive innovation as a tool to gain a temporary competitive advantage, it is no longer a given, and it is often short-lived.
Speed is the main culprit.
Just as with other things today, the speed at which things change is scary. And even though organizations that embrace change and proactively develop ecosystems that foster it will benefit from being innovative, what would previously be a seemingly insurmountable competitive advantage gap is closing fast. Entrepreneurs, business leaders and forward thinkers are suddenly finding that just as quickly as they’re able to innovate and put change into motion, the competition is doing the same.
Worse, under this new reality those people who traditionally resisted change and are unable to adapt now face serious challenges — more daunting than they faced before. Rather than be forced to adapt and change because they can no longer compete, that option won’t be available because time will be their enemy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
One of the key traits of innovative organizations is the ability to ask “What If?” In fact, it’s the most important trait, from which all other traits trail from. By asking “What if” first, organizations are able to embed curiosity into their culture.
By combining curiosity with necessity, innovation will have a better chance to flourish. Rather than innovating because you have to, the paradigm shifts once more to innovation because you want to.
When you’re able to do things you want to do, it becomes a powerful mechanism to help your company get ahead. And when you’re in a position to get ahead, the better your odds of winning.
Dustin Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business Network Inc.
Admit it. Your psyche is still a little bit shaken by the traumatic economic implosion of 2008. If this wasn’t true, the economic recovery would have been a bit stronger by now and job growth less sluggish. Instead, we’ve all learned to do more with less, watch our financials like hawks and spend our time focused on ensuring our respective organizations’ futures.
With so much at stake, ensuring the right culture — one that is focused on innovation and delivering service to your customer — is critical to long-term success. This starts with your people. To build a powerful culture where your people work together and put your customers first, it’s important to consider a four-pronged approach.
Great leaders are great teachers. Pick up any leadership or management book and you’ll read that leaders are at their best when they are helping to create new leaders. As a great leader, it’s incumbent upon you to teach every employee on your team how to grow and build upon his or her strengths.
Actions speak louder than words. That may sound trite, but it’s true. When you’re able to provide examples of what your expectations are, you’ll find others more than eager to follow your lead.
Empowered organizations are, quite frankly, more powerful than top-down organizations. Of course, empowering employees at every level of an organization can be a challenge — and sometimes scary. That’s because it means placing nearly unfettered decision-making power in the hands of every member of your team.
Find ways to acknowledge team members that go above and beyond the call of duty to excel at their jobs and make positive contributions to the organization. This should be both internal and external acknowledgement. By doing so, people see your commitment to excellence and dedication to your team. One word of caution, however: If you don’t follow through with the acknowledgement component of culture-building, then ultimately, the people side of your business will only be about what you pay them. A culture of gratitude is an intangible that has tangible positive consequences.
Dustin Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business Network Inc.
There’s a common misperception that all entrepreneurs are “throw-caution-to-the-wind” risk-takers who scoff at the odds and bet big on all-or-nothing propositions. They’re a bit like the big gambler in a casino who puts all the chips on a single bet and rolls the dice.
That may make for good cinema or dramatic literature, but it’s simply not reality. While risk-taking is one of the most common traits that entrepreneurs share, few — if any — make blatantly bad bets just to play the long odds.
Most entrepreneurs I know do approach risk more aggressively than other business executives, but they rarely — if ever — put their money on something they do not believe will succeed. Instead, they like to bet on themselves and bet on that they’re able to see opportunities where others do not.
Confidence in key, and having a “think-we-will-win” philosophy is paramount to making it happen. In baseball, if you step into the batter’s box thinking you are overmatched by the pitcher, you’ll probably strike out.
Savvy entrepreneurs play it smart and put themselves in the best possible position to succeed — often defying naysayers who neither see the opportunity for success nor are willing to invest in it.
This combination of laser-focused strategy, higher-than-average tolerance for risk and the ability to identify gaps in the marketplace is something that defines them. That they put it on the line every day reveals their iron-clad stomachs — even if they get just as many ulcers as the worriers.
This month, we’re honored to share the stories of the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year finalists and honorees in a special cover story report. This is the 16th year that Smart Business has been the media sponsor of this event, and when you’re finished reading these amazing entrepreneurs’ stories and the risks they’ve overcome, you’ll understand why we’re so honored to work with Ernst & Young each year to present such a prestigious program — here and in nearly a dozen cities nationwide.
In mid-June, I attended the Florida regional Entrepreneur Of The Year awards gala and had the opportunity to hear several honorees mention risk. Bauer Foundation Corp. President and CEO Charles Puccini, perhaps said it best when he mentioned how he inspires confidence when things seem risky.
“Just walk with me,” Puccini says. “We’ll get ‘em.”
Dustin Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business Network Inc.
As competition continues to separate the service champions from the pretenders, you cannot be complacent with your customer service approach. Finding ways to stand apart from others is one way to ensure your ascension rather than decline.
Last year, an entrepreneur friend proposed a theory about customer service that he had been thinking about for a while. Together, we conducted a yearlong deep dive that resulted in what we call “The Unexpected.”
Simply put, rather than strive to meet or exceed expectations by going above and beyond, you must build cultures where your team knows how to identify opportunities to deliver what’s not expected and create surprise and delight in your customers when it is appropriate to do so.
This philosophy won’t replace an existing focus on customer service. Rather, it enhances what you’re doing in every facet of the customer’s experience. Implemented correctly, team members are empowered to find ways to take world-class service to the next level.
The Unexpected comprises four key components, and properly delivered, it becomes:
Memorable: People remember something that is experiential. The extraordinary experience, itself, is ingrained in their memories, becoming inclusionary parts of the stories they relate to others. In essence, this is the what of The Unexpected. Think of it as the moment when the legend was created.
Distinguishable: Because The Unexpected is memorable, people remember the organization — or person — who delivers it as uniquely qualified to do so. This serves to boost a brand and acts as a differentiator when it comes to comparing two companies that provide similar services within the same market space.
Viral: Everybody loves a story. The Unexpected offers a great opportunity to tell one. Technology has changed the rules, and instead of telling the story to small groups or one-on-one, people spread the word in an instant.
Profitable: As we move toward an economy where standard — or even world-class customer service — is your price of entry, only those companies that deliver The Unexpected will be able to command premium pricing for their goods and services.
My co-conspirator and I have outlined specific and detailed methodology in a soon-to-be-published book, which any organization can follow to deliver The Unexpected — without breaking the bank and by training existing team members — but that is a story for another day.
Dustin Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business Network Inc.
At Ernst & Young LLP’s recent Strategic Growth Forum, the largest gathering of high-growth entrepreneurs in the world (more than 2,500), myriad issues facing business today were discussed.
The annual forum serves as an idea marketplace where the best and brightest minds share what works, what doesn’t and what’s next in the wild world of business and entrepreneurship.
One common theme that arose from participants during the forum was the importance of giving back to the community.
Entrepreneurs passionately believe it is their responsibility to help strengthen the communities where they and their employees live and work. They believe that since they have the means to do so, it’s important to carry that success forward and help those who are in need. And they believe it’s imperative to supports causes that align with the missions or beliefs they and their employees hold.
I was honored to spend some time at the forum with Amy Rosen, president and CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. We spoke at length about how NFTE works nationwide with inner-city schoolchildren to teach them entrepreneurial skills and create the next generation of high-growth businesses.
Many of you might not have made the connection, but here in Northeast Ohio, we have an affiliate of NFTE in Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU). This connection resulted from YOU’s merger with E CITY, a program that serial entrepreneur John Zitzner founded several years ago.
As you might have noticed, this month’s edition includes coverage of the 2011 Medical Mutual Pillar Award for Community Service. We received a record number of nominations — nearly 90 — which represents how companies are working with and supporting the nonprofit sector, how executives are donating their time, talent and money to causes on the boards of nonprofits and how nonprofit leaders are applying for-profit business savvy to make their organizations that much stronger.
We, at Smart Business, were so impressed by the record number of nominees and the work they are doing that we felt we would be doing a disservice by only telling you about the winners. Because of this, we have expanded this issue so that we could tell you about every organization that submitted a nomination.
As you read, we hope you walk away with the same level of new inspiration as we have received.
Dustin S. Klein is publisher and executive editor of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interested in learning why your company’s mobility strategy is failing?
Join Smart Business and Chris Surdenik, president of Call One, at 1 p.m. CDT on September 29th for an in-depth look at mobility in this digital age. Register today!
Surdenik started at Call One in 1998 at the recommendation of Ameritech. He had previously been a provisioning supervisor at USN Communications, where he was responsible for training and administration of the provisioning department.
He knew there was a better way to tackle telecommunications needs.
Now, 13 years later, Surdenik has proven Ameritech’s recommendation – and his decision – to be prescient. Call One has seen substantial growth, most recently being named to Crain’s Fifty-Fastest Growing Companies in Chicago and Inc. Magazine’s 500 5000 list.
Earlier this year, Smart Business sat down with Surdenik to discuss how he tackles business challenges. You can read the interview here.
The bottom line is that it's becoming an ever increasingly mobile world. And for business, that means you're conducting transactions on the go, holding meetings on the road -- and from remote locales -- and accessing your data from anywhere at any time.
So what does mobility mean, and how can you best take advantage of what's out there?
At this Webinar, we’ll tackle such topics as:
* Hardware: Smart phones, wireless devices and creating transparency in business communications.
* Client Experience: Mobility puts you in the "now" at anytime for clients, creating a dynamic customer service experience.
* Integrated Communications: How mobility plays an important role in a fully conceptualized integrated communications plan.
Register today as this is one Webinar you don't want to miss.
If you’re reading this column you’re one of two people — my mother (who thinks it’s pretty cool that her son is a writer) or somebody who is hoping to pick up a nugget of information to help him or her better run his or her organization. So mom, this column’s not designed for you.
For the rest of you, if you take one idea from this month’s missive and issue of Smart Business let it be this: Unleash your employees.
Do it today. Don’t wait. Don’t run a cost-benefit analysis. Don’t think about the short-term cost. Don’t fret over disrupting the hierarchy. And definitely don’t put together a task force charged with developing a plan for management to analyze and make recommends on.
Recently, I had the honor of having the CEO of a company quote me to me — which can be as unnerving as it is flattering — and his message was just as direct: If you want to be an innovative organization, you must tap into and, just as importantly, use the ideas from everyone within the work force.
For years, I’ve proselytized about the five traits all innovative organizations share — regardless of size, industry or even if they’re a for-profit, nonprofit or governmental entity. Simply put, the third of those five rules is: Innovative leaders build organizational cultures where innovation thrives, and they understand that it does not happen in a vacuum.
So here’s the plan — five items. Start here and then fill in the blanks by personalizing it to each of your organizations:
- Develop lines for open communication at all levels of an organization. (A so-called open-door policy doesn’t cut it.)
- Empower and trust employees to think creatively about how they do their jobs.
- Provide all team members with the tools they need to accomplish their goals. (This may cost some money, but if you trip over dollars to save pennies, you have only yourself to blame for falling short.)
- Allow people to own the ideas they champion. (You’ll be amazed what happens when your team goes that extra mile to see their ideas become reality.)
- Create an environment where those people are able to collaborate with others in order to bring them to life or take them to market. (This will require a mind shift at multiple levels of an organization and may just be the biggest hurdle you face. But it is imperative to tying everything together.)
There you have it, a straightforward strategy, a simple yet powerful plan when executed properly. Now, what are you waiting for? Go become an innovation leader by unleashing your employees.
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.
Q: Are there some (risks) that didn’t pan out well for you that you could talk about?
There’s plenty that haven’t panned out. Fortunately, because we don’t buy companies — we build companies from scratch — if something is not working out, it generally doesn’t cost us too much.
We like to take on the biggest, and I suspect the one that we were hoping (for is) to knock Coca-Cola into the No. 2 position. I believe Coca-Cola is still the No. 1 cola company in the world. We have lots of fun trying. We’ve landed in New York with a tank from England, and went to Times Square and blasted through the Coca-Cola sign … Their guns are bigger than our guns. They drove us off the shores.
Q: Do you get personally invested, emotionally, in risks that don’t pan out?
Of course, because you are dealing with people, and pulling the plug on the company is pulling the plug on people. I definitely don’t follow the rule that I should follow, which is cut the losses quickly. I can let things go on too long.
Even if you try something and fail, I think it’s good for the brand. Virgin is sort of the underdog brand, so if we try something and we fall flat on our face, somehow I think it doesn’t do too much harm. So we’re willing to take bigger risks, or slightly bigger risks, than some.
Q: Can you talk about Virgin Galactic?
I saw the moon landing as a young teenager (and) thought that one day I’d be able to go to the moon. I soon realized that because (it was) a government-run space travel (program), that they weren’t interested in you or me going to space. So, in 1990, I registered the name Virgin Galactic — I always like the sound of the name — and headed around the world to see if I can find any engineers or technicians that could build a spaceship that could offer people a return ticket.
Q: What do you have to say about your dreams?
I’m just very fortunate that I’m in a position where I can try to fulfill my dreams. The sky is usually not the limit. It’s just getting out there, finding the genius that Tom was. He came up with this idea, that the biggest danger with space travel is the re-entry. If you can turn the spaceship into a giant shuttlecock, you can then literally come in as a shuttlecock and the pilot would be sound asleep. You haven’t got all the risks that NASA had in the past. And then turn it back into a spaceship and come back down again.
It’s just great to be able to find people like that, who have the genius ideas, and invest in them and enjoy the excitement.
Q: What are lessons that come to mind from your career?
The names of the books sum up my philosophy in life: ‘Screw it, Let’s Do it.’ I’m the sort of person that says, ‘Let’s just give it a try.’
If I’m flying on a domestic American airline, which I have done over the last 30 years, and I find that the service is dire, which it has been for the last 30 years, then don’t just talk about it, go out and start an airline that gives people a choice.
I think that applies to a lot of businesses. If you are frustrated with the way people are doing things, go and try to do it better than they are doing it. Get fantastic people around you and make sure that they completely believe in what you are doing. Give them a lot of freedom to make mistakes, as well as to make good things, and let them get on with it. Don’t try to second-guess what they are doing. That will free you up to move on to the next thing.
Q: You also have a deep commitment in giving back to the community in which you live and work. What is Virgin Unite, its focus and mission?
I think that if you are an entrepreneur and you are capable of building businesses to make money, and to make a difference in different sectors, you should also be capable of using your entrepreneurial skills to look at some the problems of this world and set up not-for-profit organizations to tackle some of these problems.
Through Virgin Unite, which we set up to unite all that ... we’ve (set) our entrepreneurial team to look at things like conflict resolution issues or disease — Africa doesn’t have a center for disease control — so maybe that’s what lacking there is to set one up. …
Of all those things, I suspect that the one we’re most proud of is an organization called ‘The Elders,’ which is headed up (by) Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu and President Carter, here in America. And they’ve got the 12 perhaps most respected men and women in the world, high moral authority, and they go into conflict regions and try to resolve conflicts, and (they) have had some considerable success over the last two years.
Q: When you started Virgin more than 25 years ago, did you know that it would be such a huge global brand?
No. I left school quite young. I left school when I was 15 to start a magazine for you people. A lot of wars were taking place, and like a lot of young people (and) I disagreed with the war. Students wanted to have a magazine to campaign against the war, and I just wanted to be an editor.
I’ve never been interested in being 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. I just enjoy doing a lot, and one thing has led on to another. I never expected to be in this wonderful position that I find myself in, and I don’t want to waste that position.
Q: How do you continue to maintain this passion, continue to have so much fun after so many years, after you gained recognition, wealth, etc. ?
I think I’d be very sad if I didn’t continue to be in a position where I can make a difference. What a horrible waste it would be if I just sat on the beach all day and got drunk. I love learning, and I think anyone who finds themselves in the position in life where they can make a difference, they owe it to themselves and to society to make a difference.
I just came back today from Europe, where I just spent three days with the elders ensconced talking about all the various crises in the world and trying to think, ‘Can we avoid a dreadful situation with somebody trying to bomb Iran or making a terrible mistake in the world? What can they do to avoid that happening? How can we — the people of Zimbabwe — be better looked after than they are today?’And so on.
There are lots of different places around the world. You’ve got Sandhurst, and you’ve got all these places that teach people to kill. There are very few universities and very few people out there that are actually trying to think of ways to avoid conflict and various areas like that. And it’s very fun.
Q: What words of wisdom would you give us in order to change, grow and realize the sky is not the limit?
It has to be step by step. It was in the case of Virgin. … We would take one box, and when we felt that we had got the financial strength to go, move and do the next challenge, we would do it. And sometimes, we would do it before we’d actually had the strength to do the next challenge, but we just didn’t (want) anyone else (to) know.
You also need some good fortune along the way. We’ve certainly had our fortunate breaks, good breaks along the way, and hopefully, we’ve made the best of those. There were occasions when we came very close to failing. If you are building a business without financial backing, from scratch, there’s a very thin dividing line — as I’m sure a lot of people in this room know — between success and failure. It’s sometimes a real battle to stay on the right side of that dividing line.
When we launched Virgin Atlantic, we had a very successful record company. Our bank went into complete panic. They thought it was going to bring everything else crashing down, and they attempted to foreclose on us. Fortunately, we had one or two companies around the world (to) supply us and lend us a little extra money, and we kept going. But it was very close, between the Friday and the Monday, where things could have gone wrong.
Q: Do you have a succession plan?
I think because I’ve done some rather foolish things in my life, attempting to fly around the world in a balloon or break transatlantic sailing records and things, I’ve had to write a will quite often, had to think about what would happen if the balloon goes down. I think it would be irresponsible not to have a succession plan.
But in a sense, I run my businesses as if I’m not there anyway. If you are a true entrepreneur, one of the things you’ve got to do very early on in building a business is, in a sense, put yourself out of work. You’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to find somebody that’s better than you to run the business so you can be an entrepreneur and think about the next project and think about the bigger picture.
There are very good managers. There are very good entrepreneurs. Find a good manager to run your business so that you can think about the next project. Virgin has got fantastic people running the Virgin group, running all the companies. And that means if the balloon bursts, companies will carry on fine without me. And it also frees me up to tackle some of the social challenges I suppose I’m finding more of interest as I get older.
And if my kids want to help me out one day — my son’s playing out in L.A. at a concert if anyone’s there — I’m sure maybe they’ll come and help me out.
Q: Are you going to encourage your children to be entrepreneurs?
My daughter has become a doctor and we’re obviously very proud parents. She spent a year working at Virgin to see whether she wanted to do conventional medicine, but we do health clinics and things like that at Virgin. … She was determined to prove herself before she came in at Virgin.
In a sense, it’s the same case with my son. He’s trying to build his own business, trying to become a very good musician and doing TV shows, doing lots of different things. And understandably, he wants to prove himself before getting involved. My son is pursuing an entrepreneurial path and determinedly. He doesn’t want any leg up from his dad, which I admire.
Q: What are you most proud of that you have done, and what would you like to do next that you haven’t thought about doing?
For all of us, it is our family. I’m proud of the fact that I will be lucky enough to have the same woman for 32 years. She’s a great mother… and (I have) fantastic children. That’s what lives on after you; you live on through your family.
The Virgin Unite Foundation … can make a real difference in the world. The advantage of a company having a foundation like that is that it’s fantastic for the 60,000 people that work for Virgin. Instead of them just feeling like they’re working for a money making machine, they are working for a company that is a force for good. So their hard work is looking after themselves, and their employment and their shareholders.
Q: Who are people you would point out that you look up to?
I think that there’s two people I would name, and that is Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela. And the reason is that with Nelson Mandela , he spent 28 years in prison, comes out of prison, and not only forgives his captors and forgives the white community that had done terrible things to the black community in South Africa, (but) brings him into his cabinet. (He) unites the country. And those white people who committed those terrible atrocities, instead of sending them to the electric chair, Archbishop Tutu set up truthful reconciliation courts where there are people who come voluntarily to the courts to ask for forgiveness and apologize to the relatives of the people they’ve done these horrible crimes to.
And in that way, the country was united, and it’s a wonderful country to visit, that was the result. I think they’ve set a fantastic example for all of us. I think all of us in this room, after today, could just ring up the one person we’ve fallen out with in life, an ex-partner or whatever, and just invite them out and befriend them again, even if you don’t think it’s your fault (and) you think it’s their fault. It would make the world a better place. They set a great example in that way.
Q: How many hours a night do you sleep? And what is it that makes you realize it’s time to pull back and move on to the next thing?
Often, that’s (when) the money has run out. My wife has been exhausted in mortgaging the home one too many times. Fortunately, I think we’re just past that stage now.
I actually need a good night’s sleep. I find that people that manage to sleep well for three or four hours, it’s something I can’t do. I need a good seven hours, seven hours of sleep if I can. I think being healthy and fit is incredibly important. … Finding time to look after yourself, tennis, kites, that sort of thing, finding fun ways of keeping fit, I think is very important.
Q: Aside from business, what has been the scariest moment in your adventures? What’s next?
On attempts to balloon around the world … (I) generally ended up with a helicopter pulling me out of the sea. I think it happened on five different occasions. It can be quite lonely when you are going along at 30,000 feet in a jet stream. You’ve suddenly dropped half of your fuel and you are just heading off across the Pacific. You are determinedly hoping that you can get to Los Angeles, which we were heading for in that particular case.
Fortunately — this is where luck plays a good part in life — the winds went up from about 100 miles mph to 250 mph and we did cross the Pacific. We missed L.A. by 3,000 miles (and) ended up in the Arctic, but nearly proved that we actually crossed the Pacific, and we were the first people to cross the Pacific. …
It was great fun, but it also helped Virgin Brands get on the map and get an edge. Apart from the space travel, the next exciting area we are looking at is exploring the depths of the oceans, which are not explored. The Puertorican Trench, which is five miles from our island, is the deepest place in the Atlantic. It’s 28,000 feet down, and no one has been down it more than 300 or 400 feet. We have no idea what kinds of species are at the bottom there. And there are other incredible places, which are deeper as Everest is high. The technological problem of building a submarine to go down to 35,000 foot is vast. It’s something like 1,500 times the pressure that an airplane is subjected to. So that’s a challenge we’d love to see if we can overcome.
Q: What would you tell us we should invest in?
I think the most important area to invest in is clean energy. There are plenty of people in American who are not great leaders in global warming. … I personally think the world does have problem, and we’ve got to do something about it as quickly as possible. What is absolute fact is that we are depleting our natural resources very quickly, and the demand for oil is going to exceed supply within the decade unless we hurry and come up with alternative sources of energy. Energy is the lifeblood of everything we do. Any area of energy, preferably clean energy, there’s money to be made and there’s a world to be saved. So give it a god.
How to reach: The Virgin Group, www.virgin.com