RESPECTED entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson opens up in an exclusive Q&A with Brisbane Business News.
Virgin is the maverick start-up that changes the rules of the established game. When does the maverick turn into the establishment?
It is not easy to start a company and to survive and thrive in the modern world. In fact, you’ve got to do something radically different to make a mark today. If you look back at the most successful businesses of the past 20 years -Microsoft, Google or Apple – they all played a part in shaking up their sector by doing something that hadn’t ever been done and by continually innovating. They are now among the most dominant establishments. A game changing idea is something that really stands out. If you create something that everybody who works for you is really proud of then you know you’re on to a game changer. Businesses consist of a group of people and they are your biggest assets.
With so much in China and India, what's to become of old economies, like the UK?
The best, most solid way out of a crisis in a changing market is through experiment and adaptation which is evident in countries like India and China. Businesses surf the waves of changing circumstances, and I can't offhand think of any industries whose best players are not constantly engaged in reinvention. Making changes and improvements is a natural part of business. For sole traders and small companies, the distinction between innovation and day-to-day delivery is barely noticeable and unimportant. It's all just business and creative, responsive, flexible business comes easier the smaller your operation. Therefore in economies like the UK, the government and large organisations need to reduce unemployment and promote growth by getting behind the small and medium-sized businesses that are the engines of any healthy economy.
Who does Richard Branson hold in awe?
I have been very, very lucky and met some truly inspirational men and woman over the years. The late Freddie Laker was an extremely inspirational business figure I met in my early years. Since then – Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Archbishop Tutu , Mary Robinson to name but a few – people with truly 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.
You’re the founder of a group of more than 400 companies. How does it make you feel?
When I started Student Magazine in 1968 I never imagined in my wildest dreams that 40 years later we would grow to have set up more than 400 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 been instrumental in Virgin's success. I think being an entrepreneur you have fun when you see your ideas and businesses grow and become successful. I've had great fun turning quite a lot of different industries on their head and making sure those industries will never be the same again, to the benefit of the consumer.
What is Virgin's long-term commitment to its Brisbane base?
We are extremely proud of our airline’s Brisbane base. We have also just done a deal with the Bank of Queensland and it will now use the Virgin Money Australia brand. So we remain very committed to the state.
What skills have helped you achieve all that you have in business?
My parents brought me up to be inquisitive and to take up all the challenges put to me. This has resulted in me doing things, which have sometimes been unconventional and appeared unachievable. When we launched Student Magazine we wanted to change the way things were done and give young people a voice on key issues such as the Vietnam war. So my best friend Jonny and I decided to start an alternative magazine with a fresh attitude. We were both 16, it was the 1960s and thought we could make a difference. We have used this attitude along with the ability to identify good ideas to attract great people to work with us and ensure that we gave those people the authority to get on and build the businesses. Delegation and decentralisation has allowed me to start up many businesses in different parts of the world and not get myself too bogged down. This aligned to an ability to take calculated risks means Virgin has not been afraid of jumping into the unknown and starting new ventures or taking on new issues. Acting quickly and not getting caught up in red tape, refusing to believe it when other people tell us we can’t do things just because it’s been the accepted way to do something in the past. Never being afraid to take on the big boys!
You’ve made a career out of identifying future trends and taking decisive action – which ones fill you with the most pride?
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 fall flat on our backsides, being proved wrong. There’s no better satisfaction than watching people realising that dream.
What do you think is next for the future of business?
Global business is at a critical crossroads, there is too much short-term thinking in pursuit of pure profit. We need to ensure that business leaders ensure their companies focus on the long term good for society, the preservation of the environment and our world’s natural assets. We have begun to address some of the thinking in this area through a new group made up of far-thinking business leaders who share similar views about the role business will play in society's future. This group is known as the B-Team. I really hope you will hear a lot more about them in the years to come.
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