Staying in character
Richard Branson gives his major Houston convention talk from an easy chair
When the 261st richest person in the world is speaking — particularly when he is speaking about how to succeed at business — trust me, everyone listens.
At least that was the case when Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines and the Virgin Group, addressed the impossibly huge yet full space inside the George R. Brown Convention Center at day two of National Business Travelers Association convention Tuesday afternoon.
In lieu of a formal speech, Branson was seated in an easy chair and answered questions about his businesses, history and philosophy.
The crowd gave the biggest cheers when Branson expressed his belief in business leaders supporting the economic recovery.
"Right now many companies are just sitting tight and waiting to see what happens," he said. "That's the kind of thing that creates a double-dip recession. If a company is doing well — and many are doing well right now — they should be employing people and expanding. That's what Virgin is doing."
Branson said he did not believe the global economy was heading towards a double dip and that despite tight budgets that the travel industry would continue to recover unimpeded. "Nothing is quite the same as a face-to-face meeting," he declared to thunderous applause, then compared it to the Palestinian peace process.
Um, OK ...
Branson said his success in the airline industry is partly due to his experience in the music industry.
"Coming from the world of entertainment, if people are going to be in a seat for hours, they want to be entertained," he said. "We had seat-back videos five years before the other guys. Things should be fun. We want our employees and our customers to be smiling and having a brilliant time. That's what we as an industry should try to create. The strength of Virgin is the people. Customer service is the only thing that matters — a lot of companies don't realize that."
Branson talked about risks and sacrifices he'd made over his business career — notably his willingness to do any stunt to promote the Virgin brand and his sale of Virgin Records to finance his airline. But his biggest motif was that the best way to start a business was to find something you are passionate about, not just something that you think could make money.
"If you can run one company well, you can run any company well," said Branson, who got his start in business at the age of 15 by starting a magazine to protest the Vietnam War. "I'm not an engineer, I'm not a pilot, I'm not a musician. The hard part is getting that first company off the ground and getting that experience."