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Sir Richard Branson: Businesses Should Become Forces For Good

A business is simply people creating something to make a difference in the world, says Sir Richard Branson

Published: May 21, 2012 07:30:58 AM IST
Updated: May 21, 2012 08:04:50 AM IST
Sir Richard Branson: Businesses Should Become Forces For Good

Sir Richard Branson
The Man:
The maverick founder of the Virgin Group is fun and a very smart businessman. It is hard to believe that the man who signed Mike Oldfield for the Tubular Bells album that launched Virgin Records would expand his business into tough sectors such as aviation, telecom and financial services. He tells us how to make sure that a company stands for good.
The Oeuvre: Started Virgin Green Fund to finance renewable energy and sustainable product companies. Started the Virgin Earth Challenge—a $25 million prize to encourage a viable technology—to eliminate anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases.
X-Factor: Who says business has to be boring and shady? Not Sir Richard!
The Message: Do the right thing even if it hurts your company in the short term.

The Hypothesis
Not to do the right thing can be horribly unprofitable.
In the short term, you might make a little bit of extra money. But in the long term, you’ll damage your brand, your reputation, and that’s all you’ve got, so you just have to do the right thing, profitably, because the alternative is too horrible to consider.

So What?
When you hire people, assess how good they are at treating other people well. The biggest obstacle to people achieving what they want in life is often themselves and maybe their personality. How can you overcome that? If you’re not good at dealing with people you’ve just got to try to teach yourself to be good at dealing with people as best you can.
And you have to think, what is a business? A business is simply people creating something to make a difference in the world. Therefore, it’s not contradictory to think if you’ve created a business that’s going to make a difference in the world, that you can create a business where the people are also trying to tackle social problems.

With success often comes extreme wealth. And an enormous responsibility to make a difference: By creating new jobs, or setting up charitable organisations that get out and tackle some of the world’s seemingly intractable problems.

Entrepreneurs should be able to tackle some of the big problems in the world in a very different way than social workers or even politicians because they have the experience of looking at a particular business problem and finding ways around it.

People who have money, or businesses throughout the world, businesses throughout India, anyone who is running successful companies, should make sure they are not just money-making machines but they should become forces for good.

I’ve just put out a book, Screw Business as Usual, which is trying to encourage that way of thinking. We’ve found at Virgin it’s been highly satisfying just spending a lot of our time and energy on trying to help with issues such as conflict resolutions, global warming issues, disease control, and conserving our species in and above our oceans. we know that it’s highly motivating for our staff, highly motivating for our customers, and we plan to do more.

There are a lot of businesses that say, “We run our business like a family” and it’s just not true; you see how badly they treat people who work for them. I think businesses have got to genuinely try and run as if they were families. So, if people want to work from home, they should be allowed to work from home. If people need unpaid leave to go have a break for three months, they should be allowed to go for three months’ unpaid leave. If people want to go part-time, they should be allowed to go part-time. Try to be flexible. If somebody’s family member is ill, they should be allowed to take two or three days off.

Not to do the right thing will be unprofitable over time. So, in the short term, if you do the wrong thing you might make a little bit of extra money.

In the long term, you’ll damage your brand, your reputation, and that’s all you’ve got, so you just have to do the right thing, profitably, because the alternative is too horrible to consider.

Corruption rots society; corrupt politicians should be exposed, corrupt policemen should be exposed, corrupt businessmen should be exposed. If you don’t have a country run honestly right from the top, you have an apple that looks like you can eat it, but when you bite into it you know it’s rotten to the core.

Young people can play a large part in exposing corruption, and they should! The internet’s quite a powerful weapon to expose corruption. If they come across a police officer who’s trying to ask for a bribe, get the name up on the internet and get these things out into the open. You had one man in India who went on a hunger strike and who’s done a fine job in trying to alert the Indian public to change what had become something of a habit in India.

A few years ago, Virgin tipped off the British Office of Fair Trading about alleged price-fixing discussions between one of our staff and staff members of British Airways, leading to British Airways being fined $158.9 million. We found that one of our people had had a discussion with somebody at British Airways and obviously when we were alerted about it, it was important to say something about it, which we did, and I think it was certainly the right thing to do, and I hope we would have done it whether it was self-interest or not.

Because I think doing the right thing is important, I put that above all else when I hire anyone. I assess how they treat people: Are they good at treating people well? I did a fun reality TV show where I thought, right, how can I test these people to see how they really, genuinely treat people? So I dressed up as an 80-year-old taxi driver and picked them up from the airport and the kids that didn’t help—that just passed me their heavy luggage and made me carry it—I sent home; the ones that helped me, I kept with me on the journey.

I think the biggest obstacle to people achieving what they want in life is often themselves and maybe their personality. How can you overcome that? If you’re not good at dealing with people you’ve just got to try to teach yourself to be good at dealing with people as best you can.

Sir Richard Branson: Businesses Should Become Forces For Good
Image: Dave Kaup / Reuters

I learnt the art of delegation very early on in life; therefore the family and I spend a lot of time together. I’ve always really worked from home, so my kids grew up around me and I’ve got a wonderful wife who’s very, very grounded and so the kids are well balanced, and Holly chose a very good husband. I suspect I spent more time with Holly and Sam than almost any father I know and it’s definitely been great for me.

I’ve always been somebody that listens to other people’s advice. I’m good at asking questions, listening and learning all the time. I’ve had family friends who I’ve been to,  to get help when I’ve had problems, and they’ve been good enough to sit me down and help me go through my accounts, sort out any mess I’ve got myself into. Our biggest challenge was survival, for a long time. We didn’t have any money to back us, so we were fighting to survive for years. Now it’s more a matter of prioritising time and making sure that one doesn’t waste time, which is very important.

I think it’s very good to have a nasty fright early on; it makes you realise how important it is to sleep at night and do the right thing for your life.

Now, when I come across people who messed up when they were teenagers, I always give them a second chance, because I had a second chance. My nasty fright was when I got hit with a fine and a tax repayment and had to spend a night in jail when I was just 21 years old. I telephoned my mother Eve to bail me out and she remortgaged her home to settle the repayment. My family has always provided me with strong support.

When I’m away from home it’s very difficult, one long rush, but I fortunately retire to our  island, Necker, between all this, and that’s a wonderful, peaceful place where I can pull up the drawbridge and get my body refreshed and be ready for the next trip.

Actually I’m fine. I love people; it may be full on, but life’s fascinating, so no complaints.

You’re brought up to have a good moral stance and my parents brought me up to care about other people, to look for the best in other people, and to have a strong ethical base.

I think each Virgin business has made a big difference to people’s lives. We’re sitting on a Virgin Train. There are 16 million more people travelling on these trains than there were six years ago; so we’ve more than doubled the amount of travellers. That’s made a big, big difference to cities like Liverpool and Manchester. The service is more reliable and affordable and people can travel more regularly, and in better style.

The National Health Service is a wonderful organisation; the government’s trying to get it run more efficiently. Therefore they’re contracting out aspects of it to see if they can be run more efficiently and cost less to run. We are bidding for contracts and I think we can make a big difference to healthcare provision in Britain with Virgin Care.

Our charitable foundation, Virgin Unite, which we set up seven years ago, has made a big difference to a lot of people’s lives through its support of educational, health and peace programmes, to name a few.

Virgin Green Fund is investing in a range of renewable businesses including new fuels that we can use on our airplanes and trains that won’t damage the environment. All the profits we make from our train business and our airline business we put into trying to develop clean fuels and energy saving technologies—we’ve got some exciting fuels of the future which will be nearly carbon-neutral.

We set up the Earth Challenge with its $25 million prize as an insurance policy for the world. If we can’t tackle global warming, and we let emissions run out of control and the earth really heats up, potentially we’ve all got a big problem—so the Earth prize is there to try to encourage people to come up with ideas to extract carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere. The Earth prize is really the insurance policy for the world.

You have to think, what is a business?

A business is simply people creating something to make a difference in the world. Therefore it’s not contradictory to think that if you’ve created a business that’s going to make a difference in the world, you can also create a business where the people are trying to tackle social problems in the world.

We’re all citizens of the world—we shouldn’t think, ‘Well, that’s for somebody else to deal with, I’m just here to deal with my clients and my staff.’ Life’s too short for that!

Small business leaders should look at local issues—maybe they’ve seen people on the streets, locally, around them, and try to help those people. Medium-sized companies should try to help on a national level and international companies should help on an international level and, just like they do with business, they should choose a subject that interests them and where they think they can really make a difference.

Freddie Andrews
(Sir Richard Branson’s son-in-law)

Is it difficult to be good? I don’t think it is. You have to have the power and the will to get off your backside and do something different. It’s very easy to raise money, run a marathon. I think there’s a host of charities out there anyone can get involved with, whether it’s fund-raising, volunteering hours; at the moment, it couldn’t be any easier to do good for the world.

Your staff gets a great sense of achievement and they’re actually doing it as well, so it empowers them.

I went to Udaipur with Holly. It was the first time in India for us. Irrespective of how wealthy or poor they were, everyone had a smile on their face. I was blown away by the good work that the Virgin Atlantic charity was doing. Through Virgin Atlantic’s donations, they’ve adopted two villages. You create a sustainable community whereby you give them a school, medical care, help them farm and sell their crops that way. It was impressive; an illustration of good work.

Holly Branson
(Sir Richard Branson’s daughter)

The idea of being good and doing good in business is just something we’ve been brought up with, so I’ve got the same view as Freddie—that it’s not very difficult—and if you’ve been brought up to think about others, and have empathy with other people, then it makes you want to help and think of ideas of how to raise money, think of ideas on how to make areas regenerate and sustainable. We were brought up to look out for others.

Dad’s hugely passionate about business following the right principles and he hires like-minded people who are passionate about it. I think the consumers nowadays, armed with Facebook, Twitter, and the wide world of social media, know a lot more about companies and have much more of a choice. I think if you do good, it makes you feel good as a person, but it also means that you’ll draw more customers towards your company.
I’ve now worked for Virgin for about four years. I’m a trustee of Virgin Unite. I work on our Special Projects; I look at sponsorship ideas, our new investment ideas and our charitable work. I love all the bits and bobs that I do—especially the charitable side. I quite like the fact that I’ve got all different aspects under my belt.

Udaipur is an illustration of finding the right partners to work with. Free the Children is a perfect charity; we’re very like-minded. They feel that it’s not about just giving money, it’s about creating a sustainable village. Everyone’s realised now just handing out the money doesn’t work. There are four pillars to create a sustainable community. In this case, after three years, they hope to step away from the village and the villagers will have water, education, healthcare and sustainable income through having goats or cows, being an artisan and making things to sell in the village.

It was very sad when we heard one statistic: Out of every 1,000 women who give birth, 400 die. I couldn’t believe that—it sounds like a death sentence for the women who are giving birth. This is the thing that Free the Children and Virgin Atlantic have gone into: Try and decrease the number of women who are dying during childbirth.

Free the Children tries to give women a bit of an education—mostly because there are so many young brides and with some education it hopes it can prevent children being married off at such a young age. With women having an education and knowing it’s okay to wait a bit longer, it’s also a bit safer.

(As told to Rani Singh)

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(This story appears in the 25 May, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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