Rapaport Magazine

Branson on Business

British tycoon Sir Richard Branson discussed his approach to entrepreneurship with Rapaport Magazine at the launch of DIAMDAX in Antwerp.

By Marc Goldstein

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
RAPAPORT MAGAZINE: Many people consider profit their number-one priority in business. How do you respond to that?

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 explain that?

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 people’s lives.

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.

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