Quote to Live By
According to him, “Business is a group of people.” He couldn’t be more eloquent in summing up his business approach. Business connoisseurs may not agree with Richard’s style, but his net worth proves that it does work.
A Picture of a Boy Unlikely to Succeed
Since he was a young boy, his parents noticed his entrepreneurial inclinations. He saw business opportunities in trivial things around him. His parents knew better not to douse the boy’s passion for enterprising. Even when he dropped out of high school, his mom and dad never tried to convince him to do otherwise. They let their 16-year-old boy find his way to success no matter how far-fetched the idea seemed to be for a high school dropout.
Richard does not look at things the way most people do, partly because of his dyslexia. His teachers did not understand his needs and simply thought of him as a difficult student. Dyslexic people find it hard to learn how to read, spell, and write. However, if tapped effectively, they can excel in their forte. By happenstance, Richard found out that he has got a flair for making money.
As soon as he was certain of what he wanted to do, he realized that school would only slow him down. Rather than stand his classmates’ ridicule, he left boarding school altogether. His parents were not thrilled, but they let him be. If he found his way home at four years old, he can very much fend for himself at 16.
True enough, Richard learned to be independent from the moment he left school. He stayed in a church’s basement where he, along with some friends, put together a magazine called “Student.” He had to stop when authorities found out about his publication seeing that it did not adhere with some journalism bylaws. He turned to music and began selling records meant only for exports. That’s when he faced serious offense. He was imprisoned for a night and his mother had to mortgage their home just to get him out.
It taught him a lot about business. From then on, he vowed that he will never mess with the authorities again. The biggest lesson he learned from that traumatic experience was to make sure that whatever he gets himself into is legitimate. That night in prison did him good. In a way, he learned to appreciate freedom. From then on, he would always live life day to day and seize every opportunity to make every second of it count not only for his benefit but also for other people’s sake.
The Virgin brand all started with music. He bought an estate that he transformed into a recording studio. Bands that no one wanted became his market. Sex Pistols, for instance, was one of the bands whose name preceded their reputation. Record labels were wary of giving them a break. Richard’s Virgin Records had no image to live up to so he took a chance and signed them up anyway. Avant-garde music came next and before he knew it, he’s got enough money to buy an island just to impress a girl who would soon become his wife.
From its humble beginnings, Virgin Records grew so big that Richard had set aside ample capital for yet another venture. A music club, a publication, a multi-media production, and his airline company were born. Although he had to let go of Virgin Records to save Virgin Atlantic Airlines from succumbing to bankruptcy, Richard survived!
Since then, he became immune to debts and his chain of companies just kept growing. He has mastered the art of delegating, making him one of the most effective transformational leaders in business parlance. One more thing Richard has grown accustomed to is taking risks.
Doing business made him trust his instinct and luck. Others may find that foolish, but Richard does not bother himself with what others expect him to do. Every once in a while, Richard would push his luck by doing death-defying stunts, like crossing deadly terrain by a hot-air balloon or riding an amphibious vehicle across unforgiving seas.
He does not always succeed but it gives him motivation to achieve more. Challenges make Richard’s life more thrilling. Compassion, on the other hand, keeps his feet on the ground. Virgin Unite, The Elders, Virgin Earth Challenge, Prisoners Abroad, and International Rescue Corps are just some of the humanitarian organizations that Richard and his Virgin Company support.
Among his businesses are a train company, a space tourism venture, a chain of hotels, multi-media productions, and a collage of business ventures no one thought a modest record company would even dare invest in.
Anyone who questions Richard’s management style only has to look at what he has achieved to agree that his approach is effective. But was Richard Branson born a daredevil? Let’s go back in time to get to know Richard Branson before he became the business tycoon and visionary we now know him to be.
Richard’s Early Life: How He Overcame Shyness and Fear of the Water
In 1949, barrister Ted Branson married a hot stewardess named Eve Flindt. Ted was a dashing debonair, while Eve was every inch an attractive lady. The couple settled down in Blackheath, London where their first-born, Richard Charles Nicholas, was born on 18 July 1950. Two more daughters, Lindi and Vanessa, were soon added to their growing family. Since Richard was born, Eve stayed home and abandoned her flourishing career to focus on raising her children. That left Ted, grandson of a High Court of Justice judge, as the sole provider in the family.
The Bransons lived a simple life. They were a close-knit family. The kids grew up very close to their aunts and other relatives. Eve loves her children very much, but she does not want them to grow up dependent on anyone. She found her husband’s method to be too lax when it comes to disciplining Richard, Lindi, and Vanessa. To compensate for the head of the family’s soft-heartedness, Eve became the stricter parent.
She wanted her kids, especially their only boy, to grow up strong and able to live independently. Richard’s shyness unnerved her. Whenever they had visitors in the house, the nervous child would always be found clutching his mother’s skirt, too afraid to be on his own amidst strangers. Eve knew she had to do something about her son’s anti-social tendencies.
One day, while mother and son were in the car driving home, Eve suddenly pulled over and opened the passenger seat where the four-year-old Richard was sitting. He calmly told the boy to get off the car and find his way back home. He instructed him to ask help from adults if he gets lost.
The terrified boy suppressed a cry when his mother’s car began to grow smaller and smaller as Eve drove further. After overcoming panic, Richard started his trek back home. As it began to get darker, he thought of looking for a relative’s house nearby. But the place was all new to him. Out of desperation, the lost boy knocked on an old farmer’s door.
The kind farmer rang Eve up and asked her if she “happened to have a blue-eyed boy who has gone missing.” Eve pretended to be surprised and told the farmer that indeed her son was nowhere in the house. When her four-year-old son was brought back to her, she knew that Richard successfully outgrew his shyness. From then on, Eve saw a dramatic change in the way Richard conducted himself around people. He was much more confident and he no longer tried to hide behind her skirt whenever visitors turned up.
The following year, the Bransons spent a vacation in Devon, where Ted’s sisters Wendy and Joyce reside. Richard was thrilled to meet his aunts, particularly his cool Aunt Joyce. She placed a bet saying that he won’t be able to learn how to swim in the duration of their vacation in Devon. That challenged Richard. Ten shillings was quite an amount of money for a five-year-old boy. Since the bet was placed, Richard never stopped swimming. He practiced and practiced to no avail. When it was time to go home, Richard was hesitant to leave. According to his book, “Losing My Virginity,” Richard successfully learned how to swim only after putting his life in the balance:
"On our last day we got up early, packed the cars and set out on the twelve-hour journey home. The roads were narrow; the cars were slow; and it was a hot day. Everyone wanted to get home. As we drove along I saw a river.
'Daddy, can you stop the car, please?' I said. This river was my last chance: I was sure that I could swim and win Auntie Joyce's ten shillings. 'Please stop!' I shouted. Dad looked in the rear-view mirror, slowed down and pulled up on the grass verge. 'What's the matter?' Aunt Wendy asked as we all piled out of the car. 'Ricky's seen the river down there,' Mum said. 'He wants to have a final go at swimming.' 'Don't we want to get on and get home?' Aunt Wendy complained. 'It's such a long drive.' 'Come on, Wendy. Let's give the lad a chance,' Auntie Joyce said. 'After all, it's my ten shillings.' I pulled off my clothes and ran down to the riverbank in my underpants. I didn't dare stop in case anyone changed their mind. By the time I reached the water's edge I was rather frightened. Out in the middle of the river, the water was flowing fast with a stream of bubbles dancing over the boulders. I found a part of the bank that had been trodden down by some cows, and waded out into the current. The mud squeezed up between my toes. I looked back. Uncle Joe and Aunt Wendy and Auntie Joyce, my parents and sister Lindi stood watching me, the ladies in floral dresses, the men in sports jackets and ties. Dad was lighting his pipe and looking utterly unconcerned; Mum was smiling her usual encouragement.
I braced myself and jumped forward against the current, but I immediately felt myself sinking, my legs slicing uselessly through the water. The current pushed me around, tore at my underpants and dragged me downstream. I couldn't breathe and I swallowed water. I tried to reach up to the surface, but had nothing to push against. I kicked and writhed around but it was no help.
Then my foot found a stone and I pushed up hard. I came back above the surface and took a deep breath. The breath steadied me, and I relaxed. I had to win that ten shillings.
I kicked slowly, spread my arms, and found myself swimming across the surface. I was still bobbing up and down, but I suddenly felt released: I could swim. I didn't care that the river was pulling me downstream. I swam triumphantly out into the middle of the current. Above the roar and bubble of the water I heard my family clapping and cheering. As I swam in a lopsided circle and came back to the riverbank some fifty yards below them, I saw Auntie Joyce fish in her huge black handbag for her purse. I crawled up out of the water, brushed through a patch of stinging nettles and ran up the bank. I may have been cold, muddy and stung by the nettles, but I could swim.
'Here you are, Ricky,' Auntie Joyce said. 'Well done.' I looked at the ten-shilling note in my hand. It was large, brown and crisp. I had never held that amount of money before: it seemed a fortune. 'All right, everyone,' Dad said. 'On we go.' It was then that I realised he too was dripping wet. He had lost his nerve and dived in after me. He gave me a massive hug." (source: Losing My Virginity excerpt from Virgin.com)
Next lesson to learn was independence. At around three or four in the morning, Eve woke her son up. She has prepared some sandwiches and an apple for Richard to bring with him in his cycling adventure. Richard couldn’t believe what his mother was asking him to do. Bournemouth was 50 miles away from their home. He thought he was only dreaming only to again be roused from sleep. As per Eve’s instructions, Richard had to go all the way from their home at Shamley Green, Surrey to Bournemouth to find water.
The boy groped his way in the dark and after missing for a considerable length of time, victoriously walked into their kitchen to ceremoniously announce that he has accomplished his mission. Eve looked far from impressed and nonchalantly told Richard to go to the Vicars to run an errand for her. Inside though, Eve celebrated her son’s success. She knew that Richard learned another important lesson—a lesson not taught in school.
Living with Dyslexia
Speaking of school, Richard faced nearly insurmountable learning curves along the way. The first institution he attended was Scaitcliffe School, which is now called Bishopsgate School. Unlike other kids, Richard found it hard to learn some concepts. Texts became a mélange of letters that did not mean anything to him. While other kids learned reading without trying so hard, Richard struggled in recalling letters.
His inability to remember letters and numbers also made maths and writing difficult for the boy. His parents knew something was amiss. They sent Richard to a boarding school called Stowe School when he turned 13. Eve and Ted were hoping that Richard would get the help he needed at Stowe School to overcome his learning disabilities.
Leaving School and Starting “The Student”
But his parents’ assumptions were proven wrong when Richard experienced harsh beatings at Stowe School for the same reasons he was ridiculed at Scaitcliffe. No one understood what Richard was going through. Little did they know that he was suffering from a serious neurological impairment, making reading and writing daunting tasks. When he was 16 years old, Richard decided to drop out of school. Ted and Eve did not dare talk their son out of it. They trusted his instincts and Eve knew his son would survive. Instead of heading home, Richard, with some of his friends, started a magazine they called “The Student.” According to Eve:
"I really started him off. He had made friends with a vicar in London who let him use the crypt in his church to produce the magazine, so he and his little friends sat on the floor amongst all the coffins. One day I was going around London, and I found a pearl necklace. The police said if nobody claimed it in a month, it was mine. I didn't know if it was real or not, but a jeweler took a risk and gave me 100 pounds for it. I went down to the church and said, "You're not going to get it all in one go, but every time I come up to London, I'll give you 10 pounds." And Richard said, "Oh come on, hand it all over," and of course I gave in and he was able to launch the magazine." (source: Wall Street Journal)
The Virgin Group’s Early History
After being questioned about the contents of his magazine, he let the publication go and started selling records. In this venture, he faced a serious inquiry and was even sent to prison to his parents’ chagrin. Eve mortgaged their house to pay the fine and the taxes he owed. Richard would eventually pay off his debt when his businesses started growing.
In ten years’ time, Virgin Records had become Virgin Megastore with Virgin Books and Virgin Films under its banner. The name which was suggested by one of his friends—simply because of their inexperience in business—was no more a virgin.
Purchasing Necker Island
In 1978, Richard married Joan Templeman after buying Necker Island for 180,000 pounds. The couple has two children —a daughter they named Holly and a son they called Sam.
The year 1984 marked Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Cargo’s birth. Richard’s frequent flying led to his growing disillusionment with the British Airways’ customer service. One day, he called Boeing and expressed his interest in buying a second-hand 747 to start an airline business. An air mishap forced him to turn to the banks for funding. In order to keep his airline business afloat, Richard sold his beloved Virgin Records to Thorn EMI in 1992.
Becoming a Knight and Joining The Elders
His contribution to the business industry in the United Kingdom was acknowledged by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999. He was officially knighted at the Buckingham Palace ceremony by Prince Charles of Wales the following year.
In 2004, he set up his own foundation called Virgin Unite and after three years initiated the formation of The Elders—a well-respected non-governmental organization founded by Nelson Mandela.
Developing Green Fuels
In hindsight, Richard still has not outgrown his fondness for challenges. He has embarked on numerous death-defying adventures and holds records of some nearly impossible feats. Because of his undertakings, Richard became a news mainstay; the latest being about securing yet again another contract for his Virgin Trains business. He’s currently working on developing a suborbital space plane that would enable passengers to travel in space. Of course, he would be the first to try that one out.
Being in the airline business, Richard is one of the strongest proponents of green fuels. In fact, he has pledged around three billion dollars of their annual earnings to help develop a renewable source of fuel that won’t be as harmful as the fuels now sold in the market. He was candid enough to admit that he’s exploring the business side of it, saying that renewable energy does not have to be expensive and impossible. That’s a win-win solution from the greatest business maverick himself.
There are so many things we could learn from Richard Branson aside from facing challenges head-on and being unafraid to try contemporary business investments. Richard’s success is yet another proof of how sheer guts can get one person far. It also inspires us to do our best to rise above challenges and not allow others to set limits to what we can achieve. Richard’s active social life also negates a longstanding myth about how boring a billionaire’s life must be.
A billionaire who knows how to have fun and is grounded enough to hear and do something about the plight of others—those make Richard an adorable businessman. It’s a relief to know that not all capitalists are self-serving and greedy.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- 21st Century Leaders
- Aegis Trust
- Avoided Deforestation Partners
- Cancer Research UK
- Caudwell Children
- Children with AIDS
- Free The Children
- Girls Not Brides
- Heavens Angels
- International Rescue Corps
- Kids Company
- Life College
- Make A Child Smile Appeal
- Marie Keating Foundation
- Mineseeker Foundation
- Peace One Day
- Prince's Rainforests Project
- Stand Up To Cancer
- Starfish Greathearts Foundation
- Strike a Chord for Cancer Foundation
- Swan Lifeline
- The Elders
- Virgin Unite
- Whatever It Takes
- Virgin Earth Challenge
- Branson School of Entrepreneurship
- Sekenani Primary School
- Soldiers of Peace
- Global Zero
- Broadband Commission for Digital Development
- Global Commission on Drug Policy
- Prisoners Abroad
- Oxford United
- Student Valley Centre
- Carbon War Room
- Bhubezi Community Health Center
- Rural Transport Network
- Virgin Fuels
- Virgin Money Giving
- Queensland Ballet
- ‘Start-Up Loans’ scheme
- 1967: Started his own charity Student Valley Centre
- 1968: Launched Student, his first business venture
- 1970: Started Virgin Mail Order
- 1971: Opened Virgin Record Shop
- 1978: Bought Necker Island
- 1979: Launched Virgin Books
- 1979: Launched Virgin Films
- 1981: Virgin Games now Virgin Interactive was launched
- 1984: Set up Virgin Atlantic Airways
- 1987: Set up The Virgin Airship and Balloon Company now called Virgin Balloon Flights
- 1987: "Virgin Atlantic Flyer" crossed the Atlantic
- 1987: Launched Virgin Records America
- 1987: Launched Mates condoms
- 1990: Virgin Megastores opens in Japan
- 1991: Crossed the Pacific from Japan to Arctic Canada in a balloon
- 1991: Launched Virgin Publishing
- 1991: Bought The Roof Gardens
- 1993: Started Virgin Trains
- 1993: Virgin Radio was born
- 1993: Awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Technology from Loughborough University
- 1994: Virgin drinks were launched
- 1994: Virgin Vacations was launched in the US
- 1996: Acquired Euro Belgian Airlines then renamed it Virgin Express
- 1995: Virgin Direct Personal Financial Service (now Virgin Money) was set up
- 1995: Virgin Cinemas opened to the public
- 1995: Virgin Limobike was launched
- 1995: The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse opened at JFK Airport
- 1996: V2 Music was launched
- 1996: Virgin.net was started
- 1996: Virgin Brides was launched
- 1996: The Virgin Voucher was launched
- 1996: Virgin Trains was launched
- 1997: The Virgin Cosmetics Company launched four Virgin Vie flagship stores
- 1997: V2 Benelux record label was set up
- 1997: Virgin Books published first edition of Richard Branson's autobiography
- 1999: Launched Virgin Mobile
- 1999: Launched Virgin Active
- 1999: Radio Free Virgin started broadcasting over the Internet
- 1999: Knighted by Charles, Prince of Wales
- 2000: Launched Virgin Australia
- 2000: Received the Tony Jannus Award
- 2000: Virginmoney.com was launched
- 2000: Opened Virgin Travelstore
- 2000: V.Shop started doing business
- 2000: Virgin Student was launched
- 2000: Launched Virgin Cars
- 2000: Launched Virgin Wines
- 2000: Launched Virgin Energy
- 2000: Established Virgin Mobile Australia
- 2001: Launched Virgin Ware
- 2001: Launched Virgin Experience now Virgin Experience Days
- 2002: Launched The Virgin Vie Spa Treatment Rooms now called Virgin Spa in South Africa
- 2002: Launched Virgin Bikes
- 2002: Ranked No. 85 in the 100 Greatest Britons
- 2003: Virgin Pulse now Virgin Electronics was launched in the US
- 2004: Started Virgin Galactic
- 2004: Set up Virgin Unite
- 2004: Crossed Dover to Calais via amphibious vehicle
- 2005: Set up the Branson School of Entrepreneurship
- 2005: Launched Virgin Digital in the UK
- 2006: Formed Virgin Comics and Virgin Animation
- 2006: Ranked 9th in the Sunday Times Rich List
- 2006: Virgin Fuels was launched
- 2007: Launched Virgin Health Bank
- 2007: Virgin America began flying in the US
- 2007: Set up Virgin Earth Challenge
- 2007: Set up Virgin Money
- 2007: Helped start The Elders
- 2007: Chaired the jury of the first Picnic Green Challenge
- 2007: Included in TIME magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People in the World
- 2007: Received United Nations Correspondents Association Citizen of the World Award
- 2007: Acquired Flextech which became Virgin Media Television
- 2008: Ranked as the 236th richest person in the world according to Forbes
- 2008: Launched Virgin Mobile in India
- 2008: Opened Sekenani Primary School in Kenya
- 2009: Virgin Racing was established
- 2009: Voted Celebrity Dream Boss
- 2009: Joined Soldiers of Peace
- 2009: Virgin Digital Help was launched in the UK
- 2010: Sat as a Commissioner on the Broadband Commission for Digital Development
- 2010: Launched Virgin Money Giving
- 2011: Served on the Global Commission on Drug Policy
- 2010: Launched Virgin Red Room
- 2010: Virgin Produced launched their debut film "Limitless"
- 2010: Virgin Gaming was launched in the US
- 2010: Virgin Hotels was launched
- 2010: Created Project, a digital magazine for iPad
- 2011: Virgin Active sponsored the London Triathlon
- 2011: Introduced TiVo
- 2011: Received the German Media Prize
- 2011: Received the ISTA Prize by the International Space Transport Association
- 2012: Ranked 4th Richest Citizen of the United Kingdom according to Forbes
- 2012: Received the President's Merit Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
- 2012: Virgin America was voted the world’s best airline in Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards
- 2012: Fifth time to be declared ‘Best US Airline’ by the Condé Nast Traveler’s 2012 Readers’ Choice Awards
- 2012: Named as the most influential person in Britain on Twitter by The Independent newspaper
- 2012: Launched Virgin Pure
- 2012: Virgin Money, The Northern Rock Foundation, Project North East, and Virgin Unite partner to deliver a ‘Start-Up Loans’ scheme for young entrepreneurs
- Launched PitchTV