What makes a leader?
The UK’s most famous entrepreneur, manager and business leader? Quite possibly. His Virgin brand spans the globe and currently incorporates more than 400 separate companies. So if you’re an aspiring leader who likes to think big, think in Branson terms!
Growing up in London, his family background was financially comfortable – his father was a barrister, mother a former ballet dancer and he was grandson to the Right Honourable Sir George Harwin Branson. But he struggled at school due to dyslexia and left with a poor academic record.
His headmaster told him he world either end up in prison or become a millionaire – and he was almost right on both counts!
His first business venture was a magazine called Student in the late ‘60s, which he used to sell mail-order records, under-cutting high street outlets by a high margin. His record business became a shop in London’s Oxford St but in 1971 he was questioned by the police about illegally selling records due for export. The case never came to court because Branson agreed to repay any unpaid tax and a fine, and his mother re-mortgaged the family home to help pay the settlement. A worthy reminder to keep your business dealings above board…
Key learning: use your earnings to increase your empire.
Earnings from the shop allowed him to set up the record label Virgin Records and buy a country estate in which he installed a recording studio. He leased it out to up and coming artists, including Mike Oldfield, whose debut album Tubular Bells was Virgin’s first release in 1973 and an instant best seller.
In keeping with this style of business management, he sold Virgin Records to EMI in 1992 for £500 million to keep his Virgin airline business afloat, though he later said he wept when the sale was completed. He had formed Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984 and launched Virgin Trains in 1993, as well as Virgin Radio. Virgin Mobile followed in 1999, Virgin Galactic – for travel into outer space – in 2003 and even Virgin Cola in 2007.
Other enterprises include Virgin Media, Virgin Comics, the Virgin Health Bank and Virgin Earth Challenge. The Challenge promises to award $25 million to anyone who can demonstrate a commercially viable design to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere each year for at least 10 years without harmful effects; thereby using his wealth for the greater gain of humanity.
He has interests in Formula One – Virgin Racing – and has invested in the 3D Robotics drone company. He is involved in the financial services industry and owns the online fundraising platform Virgin Money Giving. His Virgin Limited Edition portfolio offers exclusive travel experiences on private islands worldwide. He has made several world-record breaking attempts to cross sea and sky by boat and hot air balloon.
‘My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them … from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full,’ says Branson of his endeavours, proving that work and life need not occupy separate spheres of existence.
Hi current wealth is calculated at $5 billion, and his cites his influences as Nelson Mandela, Al Gore and Peter Pan.
Branson claims that people who only want to earn money stand little chance of ‘making it’ in business.
‘There is no substitute for innovation, original ideas will always rise to the top and stand the test of time. If you continue to accept the status quo then the world will never move forward – every sector is ripe for disruption, as long as you have an innovative idea to shake it up.’
Leadership lessons to learn from Sir Richard Branson
‘From the day I took my first steps as an entrepreneur, I’ve felt that the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people’s lives better.’
‘Business isn’t about wearing suits or pleasing stockholders. It’s about being true to yourself, your ideas and focusing on the essentials.’
‘You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.’