Since Branson founded Virgin in 1970, the company has grown from a small record outlet to a global powerhouse. Can the brand continue its success without him?
Question: What is your advice for entrepreneurs?
Richard Branson: I think the most important thing about running a company is to remember all the time what a company is. A company is simply a group of people. And as a leader of people you have to be a great listener and you have to be a great motivator. You have to be very good at praising and looking for the best in people. People are no different from flowers. If you water flowers they flourish, if you praise people they flourish. And that is a critical attribute of a leader.
Question: What has been the most difficult part about running Virgin?
Richard Branson: There is a very thin dividing line between success and failure. Most people who set off in business without financial backing they fail at some times in their lives. I’ve only just stayed at the right side of that dividing line. For instance, just after… You know we had a record company. I was fed up flying on other people’s airlines. I felt that the experience of flying on other people’s airlines was an unpleasant one and I decided to set up an airline. Well our bank went into a complete panic attack and when I came back from doing the inaugural flight of Virgin Atlantic’s very, very first flight from London to New York I came back to find the bank manager sitting on my doorstep and informing me that they were going to close Virgin down on the Monday and this was the Friday and that I had two days to effectively pay them off the monies that they’d loaned us and I remember pushing the bank manager out of my house, telling him he wasn’t welcome, which is a dangerous thing to do to your bank manager and then spending the weekend ringing around the world to all of the distributors of our music asking if they could give us a temporary loan to get us through the following week, which they were good enough to do and by the end of the week we had changed banks and we actually managed to find a bank that was willing to lend us 30 times the overdraft facility that our bank had lent us and we managed to survive. And I think the moral of that story is actually don’t think of your bank as somebody that you’re beholden to. I mean don’t… You know people just don’t move from one bank to another. Sometimes you need to be willing to step up and move your banks in the same way that you should step up and move your doctor on occasions and anyway, I learned from that lesson.
Question: Can Virgin continue to be successful without you?
Richard Branson: Virgin does work very well without me. I mean I use myself to build the brand, to build the sort of three or four hundred companies around the world, but I also learned the art of delegation. I have a fantastic team of people who run the Virgin companies, give them a lot of freedom to run the companies as if they were their own companies. I give them the freedom to make mistakes and the Virgin brand is now maybe one of the top 20 brands in the world, well respected. And when my balloon bursts Virgin will continue to flourish. And maybe I add the icing on the cake on occasions, maybe they’ll have to spend a bit more money on marketing, but fortunately Virgin is in a state where it can live on healthily without me.
Recorded September 22, 2010 Interviewed by Victoria Brown