Sir Richard Branson is one of the most inspirational individuals on the planet, not just in business, but on global warming, charity and even space travel. Here we interviewed him on the first million, young people starting a business, the highs and lows, the fight against global warming and the future.
GJ: How much money did you start Virgin Records with and how old were you when it made its first million?
RB: Well I started Student with £100 that my mother gave us after she found a necklace on the road near Shamley Green. After three months of no one claiming it from the police station they told her she could have it. She knew we had no money so came up to London, sold it for £100 and gave it to us.
A few years later when we decided to open a recording studio I financed it with a bank note which was a gift from my parents and a loan from Auntie Clare. Our first Virgin artist was Mike Oldfield, who recorded ‘Tubular Bells’ which was released in 1973. This album went on to sell over 5 million copies…that is when Virgin made its first million.
GJ: When did you know Virgin was a success?
RB: It’s difficult to pick just one, as we have had many successes to be proud of over the years! For me, the triumphs that stand out the most are when, despite a lot of doubt and criticism, Virgin has entered a sector and truly turned it on its head in a positive way. Watching my staffs’ faces, whether that be at Virgin Atlantic when we first launched in 1984 or at Virgin Trains in 1997, when the doubters and the critics who said we’d never do it, we’d never turn an industry around, we’d fall flat on our backsides, being proved wrong. There’s no better satisfaction than watching the people around you, who have worked day and night to get something right, realising that dream.
GJ: In the old days there seemed to be a lot of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, how did you manage to run a business at the same time?
RB: My generation have been known to experiment but as I have been running my own business since the age of 15 and always had to get up early in the morning, I have not let myself go with excess alcohol or drugs. Okay, alcohol occasionally!
GJ: What has been your lowest point in business, have you ever nearly lost it all, I mean everything?
RB: It’s never easy to set up any business, every one of our businesses has had challenges, but it comes back to determination and drive and the love of what you do! There have been times when I thought the whole company was going to go down the pan – especially in the early years.
When I launched Virgin Airlines I put my house, car and what little savings I had at risk – not forgetting I was doing all of this to compete against British Airways – the biggest airline in the UK. Naturally there were huge risks, but I never once thought I’m doing the wrong thing, I and the people around me believed 100% we could make Virgin Atlantic a success. And just look at it now!
GJ: Most people who meet you say your a lovely guy. However most people who have got to the top in business have stepped on a few heads to get there. Can you honestly say this is not the case for you?
RB: My parents are extremely kind, thoughtful, and loving people and they taught me to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. When I was young, every time I criticized someone, my mother would stand me in front of the mirror and say: ‘The flaws you see in others are actually a reflection of yourself.’ That taught me to pay close attention when I looked at others.
They also taught me to listen and value other people’s advice and opinions. So I have always applied this in business and tried to be a good leader and bring out the best in people by listening to them, trusting in them, believing in them, respecting them and letting them have a go!
GJ: “Screw it lets do it” is your business philosophy. How true is this, would you say your a risk taker?
RB: It is impossible to run a business without taking risks. Virgin would not be the company it is today if we had not taken risks. I couldn’t tell you which was the riskiest – there have been so many! My favourite bit of advice to give to people is…The brave may not live forever – but the cautious do not live at all! The best lessons are usually learned from failure. You must not get too dispirited if you fail just try your hardest get back up and try again. Importantly don’t beat yourself up if you fail – just pick yourself about, learn as much as you can from the experience and get on with the next challenge.
GJ: How have your aims in business changed since you began to what they are today?
RB: I was full of energy, daring and extremely inquisitive when we launched Virgin Student. I like to think I remain as energetic, inquisitive and daring. Our management team keep telling me I’m just as passionate about new business ideas and keep them on their toes.
Our main aim has always been to make a difference in whatever market we are breaking into, we appreciate what the customer want and always delivering an extremely high standard of product and service. We launched Student magazine because we didn’t like how things were done and it was aimed at giving young people a voice on key issues such as the Vietnam War. We have used that attitude to grow the Virgin business into the Music industry, Aviation, Trains, Telecoms and now Healthcare. Virgin has always stood for: quality, value for money, innovation, competitive challenge and fun.
GJ: If you could own any business apart from your own, which one would it be and why?
RB: For inspiration in terms of innovation, I would say Apple. Due to Steve Job’s lifetime of effort, Apple’s various devices have given us all new ways of connecting and engaging with the world, including those with disabilities; which I think was an immense source of pride for Steve.
GJ: You have become extremely passionate on green energy, what brought this about, what was the turning point when you thought you had to play your part?
RB: It started with a phone-call from Al Gore while I was in the bath; He wanted to show me An Inconvenient Truth and his poignant and elegant reduction of these issues really struck a chord with myself as an interested non-expert. Tim Flannery’s book, The Weather Makers, also had a pronounced effect on me.
As a big buyer of fuel for our transport businesses – I am very aware of the damage that oil and it’s greenhouse gas emissions is doing to the environment and the climate system in particular. At Virgin we have been investing the profits from our transport businesses into the research and development of sustainable fuels and other sources of renewable energy.
We have set up the Virgin Green Fund to invest in these opportunities and over time I would hope some of these companies will help to reduce our impact. There is still some way to go on developing renewable jet fuels that can be sustainably deployed at a meaningful scale, but our airlines are working on bringing other airlines, the aircraft manufacturers, engine makers and the big fuel companies behind the effort. It will take a concerted effort by all to make this happen. In terms of greater threats to our ecology, it’s extremely important that we increase the amount of protected areas both on land and at sea, and we continue to incentivise cleaner ways of using energy or producing food and fibres that don’t have the same impact on our natural resources.
GJ: What advice would you give to a young person starting their first business today?
RB: First and foremost a successful business must have a sound knowledge of its market and work on how its product or service will be different, stand out and improve people’s lives. If you can ensure it responds to a real need out there in the market place, your business can punch well above its weight.
Secondly I am a great believer that you need passion and energy to create a truly successful business. Remember many new businesses do not make it and running a business will be a tough experience, involving long hours and many hard decisions – it helps to have that passion to keep you going.
GJ: Do you think it’s harder to start a business in today’s world then it was when you first started?
RB: Most successful businesses will have gone through tough times setting up, Virgin was not different and we have worked through recessions – in the ‘70s and late ‘80s – as well as terrorist attacks and wars – all of which have impacted our businesses. In each case I learnt that there are business opportunities in all the doom and gloom.
When something doesn’t go exactly to plan, money is tight or a business is struggling – see it as a challenge rather than a failure. Look outside the box and try and find a solution – you’ll be surprised how many great opportunities and possibilities arise when things look bad. You’ve just got to open your mind and not be afraid of sticking your neck out!
GJ: How involved are you still in the day to day running of the businesses under the Virgin brand name?
RB: I do still spend a lot time with our companies, looking for new markets and new opportunities but I am also fortunate that over 40 years I have built a strong, capable and very independent management team. This frees up my time to focus on working on issues that I am particularly passionate about with our not for profit arm of the group, Virgin Unite and pursuing new philanthropic ventures aimed at tackling climate change or promoting reconciliation through the Elders.
GJ: Space travel, have to ask. How’s this going and when can we expect the first flight?
RB: Virgin Galactic will not simply be a Tourism vehicle, I believe that it is an important development for the future of manned space flight, the science of space and the planet, are crucial in capturing peoples imagination and developing understanding of our planet’s relationship within our solar system for many thousands of people and through their eyes many millions more. Not only will we be able to establish shorter journey times but would also have significant environmental benefits as we won’t be pumping fossil fuel into the stratosphere but travelling outside the earth’s atmosphere in a more sustainable way.
At present we have many space tourists signed up for future flights; we are at the stage of testing the rocket and would hope to be testing rocket powered flight by the end of the year and running commercial flights in 18 months or so.
GJ: You formed a group called the Elders with some of the most admired people in the world, such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. What is the role of the group and what do you hope to achieve?
RB: The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. The group envisioned themselves to be similar to traditional community Elders, helping to share their wisdom, tackle challenging issues and ensure that conflicts were resolved peacefully. Virgin Unite played a key role in bringing together this inspiring group of elders and partners to incubate the idea and provide funding to support their vital work.
Over the last five years, The Elders have tackled tough issues like child marriage and helped to resolve conflicts in places like the Korean Penninsula, North and South Sudan, Cyprus, and many others. I am extremely proud to be able to work with such an inspiring group and excited that their impact continues to grow.
GJ: What is your main focus for the future?
RB: My next great challenge, is a challenge for us all and that is raising awareness to help ensure we leave our planet in the best possible shape not just for our children but also our children’s children.
Virgin Oceanic is a submarine that we are developing capable of withstanding incredible pressures, in which to explore parts of the sea that no one has ever been to. By exploring the Oceans with we can learn a lot from the deep seas, hopefully we will find new species and better understand the makeup of the deep-level waters. I’m very interested in finding ways to protect and to preserve our planet – we must understand how our actions affect the oceans and how we can protect them
By Harry Jarman