I was fortunate enough to see Richard Branson speak at the close of a three day event at the London Excel conference centre last week. There were reportedly 7500 people in attendance. He was interviewed by Michael Burke, and quite nervous.
“Create something that makes a difference to people’s lives”
That was his overall message, and he felt, the secret to his business success. In a way we could call that the blueprint for the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire. You can probably make a million by ripping people off, many do. But to make a billion, you have to provide something useful and be liked, you have to get on with people. Branson was clear on making peace with his enemies such as the chief executive of BA who pulled a dirty tricks campaign on Virgin Atlantic to try to bring the airline down. Branson took him out for lunch to shake hands. When asked if he had the same kind of “you’re fired!” attitude to Sir Alan Sugar, Branson replied that he would never aim to fire someone. If they’re not performing well he’ll try to find out why, perhaps they need to be moved to a different position. If the person is still disruptive and nothing can be done then obviously they’d have to move on, but that would be a last resort. Branson was keen to see Virgin as a family. A family that invites in the right people in the first place.
“You wouldn’t fire your son or daughter from your family” he said. His opinion on companies and their relationship to their employees was important to him.
“A good leader will promote well above what people will expect. (We need to) …ask companies to think about much more flexibility about how their people work. As a leader, you’ve got to be a great listener.”
When 9/11 happened Virgin lost £300 million in a week. He had to make drastic decisions to save the business and that meant offering voluntary redundancies. He told the employees that they would be first back in when conditions were back to normal. He kept to that and within 12 months everyone who had left was back again. He was sad he’s had to sell some of the companies assets – some property and the music business, but that had been necessary to keep the main businesses going.
The most exciting, and moving, part of the interview was his description of the Virgin Galactic space programme. We’ve got to bare in mind that after this month, NASA won’t have an active space programme – but Branson will. You can just imagine him trying to convince his shareholders, not to mention his engineers that they were going to be the first private company to offer space tourism!
What became powerfully clear was that he was deadly serious. This was no hot-air ballon trip. For $200k you can book a seat into space. Branson thinks he can get the price down to $50k in the near future. But why do it? He pointed out that everyone who has ever gone into space has been transformed by the experience. He wants to offer that experience to as many people as possible. When you think that big, other ideas and opportunities spring off it. He said that a spin off from Virgin Galactic will be that in the future you’ll be able to fly from the US to Australia in around 2 hours. With the cost of space travel coming down so low, he imagines schools and universities being able to create satellites that Virgin Galactic will be able to launch into orbit. This is momentous stuff when you consider that passage on the Russian Mir spacecraft is currently in the realm of $100 million.
Although he grew up in a middle class, well off family and attended public school, he felt that his success came from his ability to be self-sufficient from an early age. At one point his mother turned him out of the car and told him to make his own way to Grandma’s house. (“Today she’d be arrested” he said).
His opinion is that “Schools are almost there to make people conform” and that “we have to find our own way, to stand out and stand up for ourselves”.
So what was Branson’s secret? How did he do it?
“If I see something that’s not being done very well, I’ll try to do it better. Go for quality. Be the best at whatever you do. Otherwise there’s no point in doing it”
He was also flexible and creative when it came to coping with problems. He was not ashamed to talk about his mistakes and his failures. When his newly launched Virgin Music mail order company was launched he was faced with an elongated postal strike. He changed his plans to accommodate the new environment and instead opened his first retail store.
Finally he was asked what advice he could give to the audience (the question that Sir Alan Sugar had refused to answer the previous day).
He paused, smiled and then said his now famous catchphrase:
“Screw it, just do it!”
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