casestudy
Fourth Quarter, 1998
 
How Richard Branson Works Magic

Glenn Rifkin
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A STAR IS BORN

Ever the radical, Mr. Branson says his only business role model was a person who had failed. Fellow iconoclast and entrepreneur Freddie Laker had attempted to take on British Airways with a low-cost trans-Atlantic airline a few years earlier and had been driven out of business by the competition. Nevertheless, Mr. Branson, sensing a kindred spirit, sought Mr. Laker's counsel in the early 80's. The airline, Mr. Laker advised him, had to concentrate not just on low cost but also on offering quality and value for the money. It had to be innovative and, most of all, fun. The airline's employees, therefore, were the real asset, not the planes. 

And it was Mr. Laker who brought out the Barnum in Mr. Branson. "Freddie Laker sat me down and said, 'If you are going to take on Pan Am, T.W.A. and British Airways, you've got to use yourself and get out there and realize that if you dress up in a captain's outfit when you launch the airline, you'll get on the front page. If you turn up in ordinary business clothes, you'll be lucky to get a mention. Remember, the photographers have a job to do; they'll turn up to one of your events and give you one chance. If you don't give them a photograph that will get them on the front page, they won't turn up to your next event.'" 

Despite his public persona, Mr. Branson claims to be shy and introverted. He says he had to force himself to make speeches, embrace the photo opportunities and take part in the public relations soirees. But, he tells other chief executives, it can be done. "Before we launched the airline, I was a shy and retiring individual who couldn't make speeches and get out there," he says. "I had to train myself into becoming more of an extrovert." 

And the metamorphosis has paid off. His outrageous stunts and accessibility to the media have provided huge competitive advantage in the brand wars. For example, his media stunts in introducing Virgin Atlantic's new "drive-through" airport check-in, and later Virgin Cola, spawned widespread newspaper coverage and led to five-minute segments on NBC's "Today" show and a national audience of millions of Americans -- at no cost to Virgin. He won a highly publicized libel settlement of nearly $1 million from British Airways in the early 1990's and milked the David-slaying-Goliath angle for all it was worth. 

Mr. Branson is quite pleased that most business leaders remain below the parapets. "From a competitive point of view, the longer they continue to think that way, the better for us," he states. He relates a conversation with a BBC producer who told him that 99 out of 100 invitations to British chief executives to appear on television are refused. Conversely, Virgin is always available for air time. "With a television spot, you are reaching 10 million people," Mr. Branson says. "It would be bloody stupid to say no." 

EMPLOYEES FIRST

A genius for publicity, however, is only one facet of Mr. Branson's business talent. Perhaps more crucial to his success is his order of priorities. While most chief executives focus on creating shareholder value and devote their attention primarily to customers, Mr. Branson believes that the correct pecking order is employees first, customers next and then shareholders. His logic is simple and sound: If your employees are happy, they will do a better job. If they do a better job, the customers will be happy, and thus business will be good and the shareholders will be rewarded. 

To this end, Mr. Branson goes to unusual lengths. He regularly takes out entire flight crews for dinner and parties when he arrives on a Virgin Atlantic flight. He even stays at the crew's hotel rather than in expensive digs downtown. He gives every Virgin employee a Virgin card, which provides big discounts on the airline as well as at Virgin Megastores and other Virgin businesses. 

Because of Virgin's many disparate businesses, Mr. Branson likens his role to that of a commander of many armies fighting battles around the world. "In a sense, you are ultimately directing the war, and the critical thing is constantly being in touch and motivating your troops and helping people if they've got a problem," he says. 

So he is continually on the road, visiting Virgin businesses, talking with employees and customers. Mr. Branson is known for his ever-present notebook and pen, which he pulls out whenever he chats with employees or customers. He insists that this is a crucial element in his role as chairman and that by writing things down, he creates a regular list of items for immediate action. Most chief executives, he notes, will chat with employees in the course of their travels but by the next day will remember little of what they were told. 

Mr. Branson reads mail from employees every morning before he does anything else. This habit, which he started in Virgin's early days, changes the company-employee dynamics dramatically. Employees do not hesitate to air their grievances directly to Mr. Branson, and he has proved with his actions that he not only listens but also responds. He says that although Virgin has 20,000 employees around the world today, he gets only 25 to 30 letters each morning. "It's not as many as you think because they know they can do it," he explains. 

The letters run the gamut, from small ideas to frustrations with middle management. Mr. Branson addresses every one either by answering personally or by initiating some action. "Instead of needing a union when they have a problem, they come to me," he says. "I will give the employee the benefit of the doubt on most occasions." His loyalty to the rank-and-file employees is returned in kind. Working for Virgin, especially in Britain, is nothing short of a badge of honor. 

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