Branson whizdom

Branson whizdom

Branson whizdom

In his book, ‘Like a Virgin...’, Richard Branson comes through as a charming and balanced individual with a unique business style and concerns for the planet, writes
Utkal Mohanty

When you pick up a book titled Like A Virgin — Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School, the first half borrowed from a well-known pop song, and the second part tweaked from another popular book on business management, you have no right to expect too much in terms of original insights.

But when the author is Sir Richard Branson, the flamboyant business magnate listed as the fourth richest citizen of UK, with an estimated net worth of 4.2 billion USD as per the Forbes report of 2011, you expect a product of certain quality. Unfortunately, the book disappoints on many fronts. It is not too well written and is all over the place with no clear structure in arranging the material or any unified theme holding the book together. Some of the chapters are in the form of answers to questions mailed to him by people from all over the world and they are quite generic.

But perhaps we should remember that Branson is a doer and not a thinker, and it is unfair to expect him to espouse stimulating management concepts. On the other hand, when he recounts anecdotes from his rich business life, there are many interesting stories and nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned. Branson started his entrepreneurial stint when he was all of 16, and started publishing a magazine called Student, selling advertisement from his school phone booth. Among the early Virgin companies were a mail-order business which sold records, and a few record stores.

Today, the Virgin group comprises close to 400 different companies straddling
airlines, music, mobile communication, holidays resorts, and even private space travel.

What holds these diverse operations together? According to Branson, it is the simple concept of offering customers a better experience, and having fun while you do it. Building a fun element into one’s business, offering great customer service, willing to take on the big boys (British Airlines in the case of Virgin Atlantic) and surrounding oneself with talented people are some of the key tenets of Branson’s business philosophy.

He offers some useful pointers on how he built a mega brand like Virgin, without spending too much on advertising. The fun element and audacity was key to Virgin’s promotional strategy. “I quickly became a willing victim in all kinds of wild and crazy adventures to promote the fledgling Virgin Atlantic. You could not buy a quarter-page ad on the front page of The New York Times, but when my sinking speedboat or crashing hot-air balloon just happened to feature the distinct Virgin logo, there we were,” he explains. When British Airways sponsored London’s Millennium Wheel in the late 1990s but their engineers failed to raise the wheel for the launch day, Virgin had a small airship dragging a banner across the London skyline emblazoned with ‘BA can’t get it up.’

He makes his impatience with stuffy office rules and unnecessary formalities amply clear all through the book. “I don’t use the word ‘hate’ often, but I have always hated ties,” he confesses. “Open-plan offices with lots of communal brainstorming spaces, lounges, play areas, pool tables and kitchen areas where co-workers naturally come together and chew the fat” is what he recommends. As for himself, his hammock overlooking the British Virgin Islands is his favourite working place and he has almost always worked from home, staying close to his family. Hiring older people for adding stability to the workforce, a combination of flexi-time and fulltime employees, using phone calls and personal meetings rather than relying exclusively on emails and taking care of one’s health (“Watching your waistline will help the bottom-line,” he says.) are some of his tips for today’s organisations.

But the best insights in this book are outside the world of day-to-day business operations, and concern fields like private space travel, deep-sea explorations, sustainable source of energy, drug control and the promotion of a more benevolent form of capitalism. Branson is involved in all of these through initiatives like Virgin Galactic, Virgin Unite, the Elders (a group of wise men and women including Nelson Mandela, archbishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and others, who work quietly behind the scenes, seeking to resolve global conflicts) and Capitalism 24902 (getting together business leaders around the world, measuring 24, 902 miles in circumference, to look at what they can all do that’s right for people and the planet). His prescription for better drug control is radical yet simple: to win the war on drugs, end the war on drugs. He cites the example of Portugal, where amazing results have been achieved by treating drug use as a medical problem rather than a crime.

All in all, Branson comes through as a charming and balanced individual with a unique business style and concerns for the planet, even if the writing is somewhat clunky, badly put together and often repetitive.