By Avalon Doyle
May 25, 2012
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“Your reputation, your brand, and your name is all you have in life, and therefore you have to run your companies ethically, and you have to run them so you can sleep well at night,” said Sir Richard Branson to Carole Taylor, Simon Fraser University chancellor and Vancouver Board of Trade governor, at a luncheon on May 25.
The event took place at the Vancouver Convention Centre West with 1,400 people dining to a backdrop of sun shining down on the North Shore mountains and Vancouver Harbour. Among the crowd was Free The Children founder Craig Kielburger and star of the massive hit television show Glee, Cory Montieth. Partial proceeds from the event went to the charitable foundations Virgin Unite and Free the Children.
When asked about the success of his company, Virgin Group, Branson said, “you have to protect, treasure, and nurture your companies as if they’re human.” But it’s also about overcoming obstacles. “Virgin is a challenging brand because we normally take on corporations much bigger than us. We like to get in there and shake them up by innovating, and bringing in better product,” he said.
A key to Virgin’s success and what Branson believes to be important with any brand is remembering to have fun. “We have a lot of fun in what we’re doing, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Branson said he makes a point to find room to laugh in between all the serious stuff that comes with running an international empire — which makes for a better work environment for your employees and a better experience for customers.
“It’s important to get good value for money,” he said.
Something Branson would understand well, since most of his business ventures have started “out of personal frustrations.” After a bad experience with a cancelled American Airlines flight from Puerto Rico — while “a beautiful lady” awaited him on the British Virgin Islands — Branson, being the innovative entrepreneur that he is, found a solution.
“I managed to charter a plane, got a blackboard, wrote $35 single fare — Virgin Airways I called it — and managed to sell-out all the other people who were bumped and we filled up our first plane.”
Another venture born out of frustration is Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company.
“I love to dream and I love to try and make dreams become a reality. I always wanted to go into space. But space has been run by governments to date and they haven’t really been interested in you, or me, or anybody in this room, or our kids, or our grandchildren going into space, so we’ve finally decided ‘let’s give it a go.’”
It’s this ability to smile through adversity and find creative solutions where others may find obstacles that has built the Virgin Group’s reputation for smart marketing initiatives. When the windmill-shaped salt and pepper shakers began disappearing from Virgin Airways flights at costly rates, they stamped each one with “pinched from Virgin Airways” – making them a dinner party talking point.
For Branson, business isn’t just about the paycheque. “A business is you coming up with an idea to make a difference in other people’s lives,” he noted.
Branson said he takes the same approach to his philanthropic work, particularly with Africa. “I love Africans. I love Africa. I love the wildlife of Africa. The people are just exceptional, and yet, they need a leg up,” said Branson.
He once loaned a woman in an African village he was visiting $300 for a sewing machine which — four months later — became employment for five people and his loan was paid back.
“That got me interested in microfinance and how just giving people a little bit of a leg up like that, and if you can give a lot of people a leg up like that, the difference it can make.”
That’s how Branson believes businesses can become “a force for good” and not just rely on politicians to do the social work.
“I think that’s a great mistake. I think business leaders have a lot of entrepreneurial skills that politicians and social workers don’t necessarily have,” said Branson. “Use your entrepreneurial skills to look at how to tackle issues in the same way you’d use your entrepreneurial skills to tackle business challenges.”
It was after a failed attempt to resolve tension peacefully in Iraq before the invasion by Britain and America, that Nelson Mandela, with the help of Branson and Virgin Unite, formed the Elders.
“We thought maybe if we could get the 12 wisest men and women in the world together as a group of elders, headed up by Nelson Mandela, that they could go into conflict regions and try to bang heads together and resolve conflict,” said Branson.
Today The Elders are working hard to resolve global conflicts, and have made a difference in countries such as Kenya, where they helped peacefully form a coalition government.
When Taylor asked Branson what it is he thinks society is doing wrong, he used our drug policy as a global issue that we are losing.
“It was obvious that the war on drugs has completely failed,” he said. “Treat drugs as a health problem not as a criminal problem, because that has proven to work.”
Portugal — after moving the drug policy from the criminal sector into the health sector — has seen dramatic drops in numbers of drug use, drug-related crimes, and drug-related diseases, he said. “Do not do what Canada is doing, which is to tighten up in the punishment regime,” stated Branson firmly. “I would urge Canada to have a rethink.”
Despite his interest in political issues, Branson said he does not intend to become involved personally.
“If you get involved in party politics it’s more difficult in some ways because the public then starts thinking that you’re only saying this because you’re pushing your party’s line or whatever,” said Branson. “It makes it more difficult, I think, rather than easier to achieve what I want to achieve.”
In her closing remarks to Sir Richard, Taylor asked about his family.
“We’ve been very fortunate as a family. I’ve always worked from home, which I’ve tried to encourage...I think it’s important, as a father,” said Branson. “My kids grew up crawling, running around as I was on the phone building Virgin but at least we were always close and together.”
Now his kids are grown —his daughter is a doctor and his son makes documentary films— but they are still just as close. This summer they will be kite surfing the English Channel and climbing the Matterhorn together.
“They love a challenge,” said Branson. “I certainly wouldn’t want to hold them back, because you only live once and you should live life to its full.”
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