Inspiring Best Practice 12 October Oct 2017 1557 12 October 2017

Richard Branson: “Food and innovation. This is how I lay out the future”

At the age of almost 70 years, the visionary founder of Virgin Records, a 5 billion dollar empire, has absolutely no intention of retiring. And continues his investments. What is the next goal? A revolution in the food industry.

  • ...

He is one of the most visionary entrepreneurs in the world, and nobody is cooler than him. Successful since the 1970s, always impeccable, always the right maxim at the right time, in addition to being a monument to the self-made man, the man who has built an empire only counting on his own skills, Richard Branson, who was awarded the title of Sir for entrepreneurial merits by Queen, is also one of the most charismatic billionaires in the world. It is no mere chance that he hosted Barack and Michelle Obama during the post-presidency vacation on Moskito Island, the Caribbean atoll he owns. Photos of the tycoon and the former president engaged in a kitesurfing race last February received millions of likes around the world.
Born in London in 1950, the iconic father of Virgin Records, the record label established by him, which became a giant in the music industry in few years, Sir Richard Branson began his career at the age of 16, after leaving school without even completing senior high school. "I am dyslexic and this was considered a disability. My teachers thought I was lazy, not very intelligent and unable to keep in step with the others", he wrote in an article in The Sunday Times. "But my dyslexia has become a huge advantage in the real world. It has helped me to think creatively and see solutions where others only see problems".

My dyslexia has become a huge advantage. It has helped me to think creatively and see solutions where others only see problems.

Richard Branson

And today Branson is an icon of creative thinking and problem solving. Today his corporate strategy is used as a case study for the most prestigious MBAs, and episodes of his private life are now famous. A widely known anecdote relates that when he was stuck at the airport due to a cancelled flight, Branson organised another private flight for himself and other passengers in the same situation. On the other hand, he explained, “launching a business means embarking on an adventure in which you spend all your time solving problems”. His first experience was a student magazine distributed in various schools, “I participated wholeheartedly in this project, moving beyond my dyslexia”.

The hippie with a passion for innovation

It was precisely to support the magazine that Mr. Virgin decided to establish a small business by selling records by mail order, precisely Virgin. That was in 1970. Branson was twenty years old and lived in a town with a group of hippie musicians. The initiative did not meet with instant success but it was quite profitable, and enabled him to expand the business by opening a recording studio and several record shops. Hence the Virgin Group was established.
Since then Branson has launched more than 400 entrepreneurial initiatives practically in all sectors, ranging from airlines to hotels, from telephony to banks, and even joining the race to outer space, like anybody belonging to the elite of mega billionaires who wants to be acknowledged as a genuine innovator. However, at the age of almost seventy, with net assets amounting to 5 billion dollars, Branson has not stopped his progress.
Ranking among the most important investors in the world, Sir Branson has transformed his atoll at the Virgin Islands into a centre for innovation, where he hosts scientists and entrepreneurs who seek isolation to concentrate on their projects. Guests also include winners of the Extreme Tech Challenge, the most important competition for technological start-ups in the world. Branson personally follows the winners during the development of their enterprise.
To put it in a nutshell, Sir Virgin has absolutely no intention of retiring. From his huge estate in the Caribbean, where he lives, he continues speculating on the future.

A revolution in the food industry

The latest market in which Branson has decided to invest is the food sector. A vegetarian and staunch environmentalist, Mr. Virgin has focused on Memphis Meat, a start-up engaged in the production of meat in the lab from cells collected from a selection of high quality cattle and pigs. Test tube steaks that respect the environment. Indeed, Richard Branson is sure of one thing, precisely that in thirty years we will no longer be able to afford the consumption of resources required to produce meat. And, if we want a steak, it will have to be produced in the lab. A prediction Bill Gates too agrees with. Indeed, he too is one of the start-up’s investors.

Forget safety, the future is unpredictable

Innovate, change, never remain stationary - this seems to be Richard Branson’s mantra. "Companies are not future proof, and nothing lasts forever", he wrote in his biography. "Entrepreneurs must adapt, and avoid being nostalgic. Sometimes you have to guide the company in a completely different direction because circumstances and opportunities are no longer the same as before", an attitude, which, according to Branson, must be adopted not only by entrepreneurs. "You must be an inspiration for employees for everybody to start reasoning like entrepreneurs. Give people more responsibility, and they will achieve better results".
Trust your employees completely because, according to Branson’s theory, they are the key to the company’s success. "If people are proud of what they do and of the brand they work for, if they feel treated well, if they feel that we are taking care of them, then they will be happy, and customers will find it easier to have a good experience," says Branson. "If, instead, they do not feel appreciated and treated well, they will at most do their work with a strained smile, and customers will not be inclined to return. This is why we give precedence to employees over customers. If you take care of them, then they will take care of the customer".
A philosophy that is mirrored in other aspects too, such as the option of working from home, having flexible hours and unlimited leave of absence from work. "We like to treat employees as responsible adults (which they obviously are). And this is one of the reasons why we attract the best professionals”, says Branson. "It is neither effective nor productive to compel people to behave conventionally. Flexible hours encourage staff to find the best balance between work and private life and thus become happier and more productive". An approach to work that Mr. Virgin has personally adopted. "I like the concept of flexible working hours and working from home very much. It is something I have done for the past 50 years. I have never had a real desk or office and, certainly, I have never swiped a time card," says Branson, mentioning all the unconventional places he and his team have converted into an office. One of his favourites is a house on the water. "I lived, worked and played there. I have held meetings while caring for my son, doing my utmost to spend as much time as I could with my children. Some of my best memories are centred on that house on the water, where I also signed major contracts".
The brave will not live forever, but the most cautious do not live at all!

The greatest adventure of all times
"The brave will not live forever, but the most cautious do not live at all!" This is one of Mr. Virgin’s most famous phrases. It means that being an entrepreneur means venturing into unexplored areas. There are still many things to discover, invent and achieve, and we need courage to do this. Moreover, the London-born tycoon certainly knows what adventures are made of. Not only entrepreneur and fearless investor, but also an enthusiast of extreme sports, he kitesurfed across the English Channel and crossed the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, beating all speed records. And the biggest challenge still awaits him, the journey into outer space. Established in 1999, Virgin Galactic is the first company designed to organise spaceship tours, a dream conceived as a boy while watching the moon landing on TV. And if the company is still focused on research and development in this sector after almost twenty years, Branson is sure of the outcome, "It will be the greatest adventure of all times", and he has no intention of passing up.