1 Nov 2012 10:19am

Sir Richard Branson: out of this world

Sir Richard Branson reveals to Sophie Mei Lan what drives his entrepreneurial spirit and the secrets of his global success

Some entrepreneurs just like to have fun. This is certainly true of Sir Richard Branson – the tie-loathing explorer and businessman. His passion for music led him to create Student magazine, aimed at music-loving students and funded by advertising – although his mother lent him "a small amount of money early on" to help expand it.

This was to be the foundation for his mail-order record business, which later became Virgin Records after an employee suggested the name. This developed into a multi-billion pound empire that has since created 600 companies.

Today the head of the Virgin Group owns 400 companies. But as he explains in his latest book Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You At Business School, "small is beautiful".

He says: "Virgin is considered a pioneer in many different industries based on the diversity of our businesses and our innovation, rather than the size of any of our companies. I am extremely proud of each company we have started. But more importantly, I am proud of the amazing people who have helped me and have been instrumental in Virgin’s success."

He is driven by challenges, creativity and most of all his desire for not sticking to the rules or "business as usual". He likes to turn the hierarchical pyramid upside-down and believes "nice guys can finish first".

I like challenges in life and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. You need to spice up life every now and then with a bit of adventure and excitement

Sir Richard has finished first with a £3.4bn fortune to his name, as well as owning his own island. "I do have to pinch myself when I’m on Necker Island [in the British Virgin Isles] – I still can’t quite believe it is ours," he says.

Rich he may be, but he remains active as owner and CEO of the Virgin Group, which covers a range of businesses from health clubs to airlines and, most recently, banks. As well as his wide range of business interests, he is a consummate campaigner and an intrepid explorer. In fact, on the morning of our meeting, he tweeted from Mont Blanc, "Climbed since 2am wearing miner’s lamps in the dark. 6 of #BigClimb team made it to the summit! Breathtaking, standing on top of the world."

Smart casual

Yet that evening he made it to London for our interview and to support a group of entrepreneurs – his Virgin Media Pioneers. He arrived in his usual casual clothes, his smile as broad as ever.

"I like challenges in life and pushing myself out of my comfort zone," he says of the morning’s climb. "You need to spice up life every now and then with a bit of adventure and excitement."

When it comes to challenges as an entrepreneur he has leapt most boundaries. "It can be a challenge not to let failure or the negativity of others prevent you from going after what you believe in and what in your gut tells you can work," he confides. "It is important to face these challenges head-on and give them a go and importantly not to beat yourself up if you fail – just pick yourself up, learn as much as you can from the experience and get on with the next challenge.

"Challenges can also be great opportunities," he continues. "We are facing an extreme financial crisis at the moment, but if you have a little capital and are vigilant, you may just come across an opportunity to grow and expand your business during the difficult times. Try to make the most of any obstacle that is put in your way. My granny’s favourite saying was: ‘You’ve got one go in life, so make the most of it’."

The tycoon has already broken world records for crossing the Atlantic in a speedboat and in his hot-air balloon, with a few failed attempts and setbacks along the way. Space Tourism is next on his list, with Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital space launch.

"Our first step is to prove that it is possible to take ordinary people into space, keep them safe and make it financially viable," he says. "If this is successful then we could see a rapid change in the space and aviation sectors, with the potential to develop intercontinental travel via space."

Unsurprisingly, Branson’s reveals in his biography that his heroes are Sir Francis Drake and Christopher Columbus. There are other key figures who have inspired him. "I have been very lucky and met some inspirational men and women over the years," he says. "The late Freddie Laker was an extremely influential business figure in my early years. Since then Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Mary Robinson to name but a few – people with good hearts who are not afraid to say what they believe and raise the issues for people across the world who would otherwise go unheard."

Many see Sir Richard as outspoken, even eccentric, but his approach has made him a transformational leader who not only runs a huge organisation but has pioneered and succeeded in a number of industries. He devotes most of his time to not-for-profit work, as he believes businesses should be set up "to improve the lives of people". This philosophy echoes throughout the Virgin Group and has led to the launch of Virgin Unite, a not-for-profit strand of the brand.

"Business is about creating something that makes a difference to people’s lives. Once business is successful it can make an enormous difference and encourage entrepreneurship," he says. "Entrepreneurs need to use their skills to tackle the issues that face us – that includes not-for-profit."

He cites the example of the Elders, a group of leading global statesmen and women, set up after a conversation he had with musician Peter Gabriel. "The Elders is a truly awe-inspiring group of men and women who share their experiences to help others. It is fascinating to listen to this group of eminent global leaders and see what they are doing to find solutions for many causes of human suffering."

Success in business, he says, means enjoying what you are doing. "It’s about creating something that stands out and everyone is proud of; being a good leader and being visible." And good leaders have to encourage staff to be more entrepreneurial and inspire them to love the business as much as you do.

Sir Richard also emphasises the point that a successful business needs a "strong management to execute the plan and a good brand to give it the edge over its competitors."

Accountants are at the core of every successful business, as he knows all too well. "You need to make sure you’re earning more than you’re losing otherwise the business is not likely to be around for many years to come," he says.

The billionaire, sixteenth on The Sunday Times UK rich-list, knows the value of an accountant. "Our finance departments employ people who know their numbers, but more importantly they have got to ‘get’ the brand and our overall beliefs and culture. On paper one deal might look better than another, but we need to assess what would be the best deal for Virgin going forward. I’m not one of those people who think finance people can’t be creative as well – and I mean creative in a good way, by the way."

Brand identity

The red logo, the quirky sound bites, the cutting-edge adverts and the relaxed boss makes Virgin one of the most identifiable brands in the world.

"The Virgin brand is passionate, determined, focused on its staff and customers and has remained very curious over the years," explains Branson. "Even today, the Virgin brand is not a product; it’s an attitude and a way of life to many. That attitude is about giving customers a better time and better value in a fun way that embraces life.

Even today, the Virgin brand is not a product; it’s an attitude and a way of life to many

"All brands have a personality, whether they like it or not. Some are good and warm and loved, others less so. But brands, ultimately, belong to the consumer and while a business can influence its brand by what it does and how it behaves, it is what the customer thinks at the end of the day that is the only important thing."

The Virgin Group has had successes in so many different industries that are all done the Virgin way, even if that means they occasionally fail – remember Virgin Cola? But Sir Richard has his own take on this. "Take that leap into the unknown. I’ve taken many knocks over the years, but it has only made me stronger and more determined to succeed. I also think you really need to have the ability to listen to other people and not have too much of an ego so you know when other people’s ideas are better than yours."

And he is passionate about encouraging the next generation of entrepreneurs through his Branson School of Entrepreneurship in South Africa. "We all need a mentor," he says. "I started when I was 15 and I know I needed someone to turn to, particularly with accounts.

"In 2010, we launched Virgin Media Pioneers, an online community for young entrepreneurs, with the aim of helping young people realise their potential. I’m championing a cause that is both close to my heart and vital to the UK’s economic recovery.

"We are providing easy access to peers, practical advice from experts and tangible support for young entrepreneurs. These initiatives are all about trying to use our contacts and connections to change the world for the better."

The bigger picture

When Sir Richard isn’t travelling (which is rare) he is on Necker Island. "I have always been lucky enough to work from home, so my kids never grew up watching Daddy leaving early for work and getting back late in the evenings," he says. "I make time to have fun with my family and friends, involve them in what the businesses are doing, take them on airline inaugurals, invite them to the parties we throw – they then become part of it and we all get to enjoy the wonderful opportunities that the growth of Virgin has brought."

There is no stopping Sir Richard, even at an age when many are getting ready to put up their feet. His idea of relaxation is playing tennis and kitesurfing on the water around his island. Even the parameters of the sky fail to deter his anarchist spirit.

He is in every sense an entrepreneur.


Rail order

In August, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced Virgin Trains would lose the London-Glasgow West Coast Rail Line to FirstGroup.

Challenged in the High Court by Virgin Trains over what Sir Richard called a "fiasco", new transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced the entire process should be restarted, at a cost of £40m to the taxpayer.

Branson says that Virgin Trains will only bid again if the process changes: "It needs to be open and transparent and recognise innovation, investment and customer service and not be based on price alone."

He then states: "No one has won out of this. The win would have been if we had been able to offer the new services and products we had in our bid. Instead we have confusion and uncertainty."

Virgin Trains has been asked to run the line in the interim while the revised bidding process is resolved.

Sophie Mei Lan


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