Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has built his global business empire on his unique principles and ethics. While the common adage, “The customer is always right,” is important, Sir Richard also follows his own beliefs.
He is quoted as saying, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
Having amassed an estimated $5 billion, the London-born founder of the Virgin brand, who left Stowe School in Buckinghamshire at 16 with only three O-Levels, has certainly proved his philosophy to be correct.
Sir Richard, 68, is testament to the fact that poor exam results need not hamper your success. His forward-thinking ideas have made him into a multi-billionaire, with his Virgin Empire boasting more than 400 operations, including Virgin Media, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Trains and Virgin Money.
Where it all began
Born in July 1950, Sir Richard never excelled academically, due to the fact he was dyslexic. In interviews, he said his teachers thought he was “lazy and dumb”, treating his dyslexia as a disability.
He pointed out that German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and business magnate Henry Ford (founder of the Ford Motor Company in the US) were both considered dyslexic, so it certainly hadn’t held them back.
He now believes dyslexia is a positive trait, with people who are dyslexic excelling in life because they tend to simplify things.
He has spoken out about the “stigma” attached to dyslexia, saying that once he was free from “archaic schooling practices and preconceptions”, he entered the real world with an open mind. His dyslexia became an advantage, helping him to think “creatively and laterally”.
Where many other people saw problems, Sir Richard was able to see solutions – a trait that has assisted him throughout his hugely successful career. He has also set up a charity, Made by Dyslexia, aimed at changing society’s perceptions about people with dyslexia and offering practical help at schools.
Sir Richard’s parents, barrister Edward and air hostess and ballet dancer Eve Branson, always supported his ventures. His mother was an entrepreneur herself, having successfully created and marketed wooden wastepaper bins and tissue boxes.
His first business plan, in the mid-1960s, was to breed and sell budgerigars, but this wasn’t a commercial success. He then tried his hand at selling Christmas trees, but this venture was unsuccessful too. Undeterred, he had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and turned his talents to producing a magazine, called Student, in 1968.
It was his first business success and after just one year, he invested his profits in setting up a retail record business, operating from the church premises that were also home to Student magazine.
His net worth was said to be £50,000 after just 12 months. Prominent personalities, such as Rolling Stones’ lead singer Mick Jagger, agreed to be interviewed for Student. Sir Richard advertised his records for sale in his magazine, as he was selling them for significantly less than the high street retail outlets.
Business was booming and he earned enough money to launch his own small recording studio in Oxfordshire in 1972. His first signing for Virgin Records was Mike Oldfield, who released the legendary Tubular Bells. He opened his first record shop, Virgin Records, in London’s Oxford Street in 1973, when he was still only 23 years old.
This was the start of the growth of his Virgin empire. He signed other acts to Virgin Records, including the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones and Culture Club, making it one of the world’s leading record companies.
Building on the success of Virgin Records, he then launched his own travel company, Voyager Group, in 1980, followed by Virgin Atlantic, his airline company, in 1984. He expanded his retail records business to the Virgin Megastores chain after launching his airline.
He sold his Virgin Group music business to Thorn EMI for $1 billion in 1992. Four years later, he launched another record company, V2, signing stars such as Tom Jones.
In 1995, Sir Richard founded a UK-based bank and financial services company, Virgin Money. Virgin Trains followed in 1997.
In 2004, he joined the space race, launching his new space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, in liaison with American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. In 2006, Sir Richard launched Virgin Media, providing telephone, internet and television services in the UK.
He launched the Virgin Health Bank in 2007, offering parents-to-be the chance to store stem cells for the future. In July 2012, he announced that he was founding an orbital space launch, called Launcher One. It is currently under development by Virgin Orbit – the company formed by Sir Richard in 2017 to develop the rocket.
Today, the Virgin Group controls more than 400 companies and its founder is known as one of the world’s greatest business magnates, investors and philanthropists.
Employees come first
Sir Richard believes that his philosophy, “employees come first”, is the reason behind his success. He respects his staff, taking the time to meet them in person and listen to them.
To prove he is serious about this business ethic, he has put himself in their shoes and gained a genuine insight into their working conditions. This, in turn, has made the employees loyal to their boss and proud to work for Virgin.
Sir Richard also believes in having fun and is well-known for his charisma and eccentric behaviour. One of the most famous examples of this was when Branson served as an air hostess on an international flight!
He dressed up as a female flight attendant in May 2013, on a charity flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia. Resplendent in a red skirt suit and matching lipstick, he served refreshments to passengers for the duration of the flight.
Sir Richard is also famous for his inspirational quotes, which are often referred to in the business world. For example, he has advised, “Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.”
In the same vein, he says, “Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming,” – which has been his own philosophy. He has a goal-oriented nature and if one idea hasn’t worked out, he has soon had another one and has strived to achieve his dreams.
He has never been afraid of trying something new, as he says, “The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”
He advises others to take a chance and test themselves, urging people to “push your boundaries and have fun.”
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