RAPAPORT MAGAZINE: Many people consider profit their number-one priority in business.
How do you respond to that?
From Virgin Music in 1970, Sir Richard Branson built the branded
Virgin Group of more than 200 companies in 30 countries with
2011 revenues of $21 billion. Virgin Unite, the group’s nonprofit foundation, adapts Branson’s entrepreneurial approach to solving problems as varied as global carbon emissions, youth homelessness in Canada and the U.S. and health initiatives in
rural Africa. Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Burton
Richard Branson: People often ask me for advice on how to
get rich. My response is to find something you are truly passionate about and
pursue that — and the money will follow.
RM: You said that personal frustration — as well as passion
— is an important factor that precedes the creation of a company. Can you
RB: Starting a business is a huge amount of hard work,
requiring a great deal of time, so you had better enjoy it. When I started
Virgin from a basement flat in West London, I did not set out to build a
business empire. I set out to create something I enjoyed that would pay the
bills. For me, building a business is all about doing something to be proud of,
bringing talented people
together and creating something that’s going to make a real difference to other
You need to ensure that your business or idea has a place in
the market and a product or service that is different enough to attract
customers. At Virgin, we stick to a simple checklist. Our businesses need to be
innovative, maintain a certain quality, be value for money and have a sense of
fun. They also tend to focus on customer service. We like to be the customer’s
champion, bringing simplicity and transparency to many businesses.
RM: What do you tell people who are blaming the economic
crisis for their lack of success? Is the crisis the price we have to pay for
not understanding that we all have to change our values toward something more
human and responsible?
RB: People often blame economic conditions or the lack of
financing from the banks as the key reasons for the failure of more small
businesses to thrive. Surely, banks need to keep credit flowing to emerging
companies and governments need to hold down the bureaucracy and red tape. But
mainly, entrepreneurs need to take responsibility and keep driving their
businesses on. A good business idea needs hard work, determination and a little
luck to succeed.
RM: In the first “Spiderman” movie there is a line “With
great powers, come great responsibilities”...
RB: That’s true. With extreme wealth comes extreme
responsibility. And the responsibilityfor me is to invest in creating new
businesses, create jobs, employ people and to put moneyaside to tackle issues
where we can make a difference. A great deal of my time now is spent with
Virgin Unite. Our not-for-profit foundation connects our businesses and
partners and employees to tackle tough challenges using entrepreneurial
approaches. We want to be catalysts for new ways to deal with providing health
care on a large scale, encouraging peace and diminishing factors that
contribute to climate change.
RM: How do you monitor all the companies you own?
RB: Since we don’t have all the answers, we work with great
partners and experts to make sure we are always informed by the people who
actually face the issues. Often, they know the answers but have not had the
chance for their voices to be heard.
We don’t wait until there are problems. “Whenever there are
troubles” would be too late. I like to travel on Virgin Airlines on a regular
basis and as a regular customer myself. A good leader does not get stuck behind
a desk. I’ve never worked in an office — I’ve always worked from home — but I
get out and about, meeting people. It seems I am traveling all the time but I
always have a notebook in my back pocket to jot down questions, concerns or
good ideas. Social media has also made it easier for me to learn how the
companies are doing and share feedback.
RM: You said that the essence of management is to
preemptively address issues before they become more severe. Do you think that
applies to all conflicts, even international ones?
RB: We helped establish The Elders, a group of wise men and
women that includes Nelson
Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson,
to name a few, who work quietly behind the scenes seeking to resolve global
conflicts. We are working to set up a Disease Control Hub in partnership with
the South African government and health leaders to help eradicate suffering
from preventable and treatable diseases. We have also helped set up a Carbon
War Room to scale new business models to tackle climate change.
RM: A diamond is basically pure carbon. What do you think
the diamond industry, which is a mining industry, could do to help the Carbon
War Room you’ve set up in Virgin Unite?
RB: We established the Carbon War Room to help harness the
power of entrepreneurs to find solutions to climate change. Tackling the
problem industry by industry, the Carbon War Room has already started working
with partners in shipping and building. New fuels are just one tool in the
battle against climate change. The past 40 years have brought great progress in
information technology, software and computing, and many fortunes have been
made. I believe the next 40 years will see great progress in the clean, green
sector, a host of new fortunes made and the creation of a more equitable,
cleaner and safer world.
RM: What do you hope the audience gained from the meeting
with you, be they diamantaires or not?
RB: That everyone has the opportunity and ability to screw
business as usual. We all have a wonderful opportunity to revolutionize the way
we do business to put people and planet first.
RM: As we noticed during your address, you’re not a fan of
formal speeches. Is this more informal approach a token of respect for your
audience and a reflection of your “people and planet first” motto?
RB: Yes, I prefer interactive “conversations” over speeches, because people like to be
talked with, not talked at.
Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2012. To subscribe click here.