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The Virgin Knight

Sir Richard Branson's new world order: save the planet, save its people and keep an eye on things from above. Way, way above.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

(continued from page 6)

If some are stunned—or skeptical—at Branson becoming such a knowledgeable and recognized voice on the complex issue of global warming in a relatively short period of time, compared to, say, some political leaders or entire administrations, Branson just shrugs.

"The way I start businesses is to immerse myself 100 percent for a few months. It's as if I've gone to college to learn everything there is to know about a particular industry, to listen and to learn."

Part of it, admits Branson, is his fascination with new things, but a lot of it has to do with the solid business sense he's brought to other aspects of his life. And, he says, part of it is also figuring out what you don't know and, through diligent research, figuring out who does.

"I've got [more than 200] businesses. If I have to pull away, I have to leave it up to chief executives to run it. So when they come to me and say, 'I really think that this is a breakthrough,' I can have a sensible conversation with them. If I just signed a check and said, 'Set up this business, just go ahead and set up' and, damn it, didn't realize the downside of corn-based ethanol in America or the fact that sugar-based ethanol in Brazil is six times more efficient than corn-based ethanol in America or that switch grass and willow trees could turn into cellulosic fuels…well, you get the picture!

"I think if you don't know the basics then you really shouldn't be going into an industry," he muses. "I'm sure good accountants can run businesses, but I think they're not going to be exceptional businesses. In our case, we're looking for the best scientists from all over the world…China, India, Australia, South Africa and America. Who's going to build the most efficient windmills? Who's going to come up with most advanced solar panels? Who's going to try to turn ethanol into cellulose ethanol [or] cellulose ethanol into butanol? Who's going to go from there to turn it into isobutanol? Who's going to come up [with] a fuel that's going to fly planes, and so on. I knew nothing about chemistry or physics or anything at school but I've learned, I've had a crash course in it and I think we've come across the best people in the world."

Branson, who was once quoted in his earliest years of business success as saying, "I believe in a benevolent dictatorship…as long as I'm the dictator!" has learned how to delegate and delegate well, and if an earlier comment about having managers prepared for "if I had to pull away" sounded casual, it's a subject that often comes up, directly or indirectly, with everyone from the business press and longtime investors to, one assumes, his family.

Inevitably over the last 20 years or so, Branson's PR pranks (such as water-skiing while being pulled by a blimp) and adventures involving high speeds, high altitudes or both (think boats, balloons and skydiving) have resulted in public and private contemplation about what would happen to a business conglomerate so thoroughly connected to its founder's personality should he…leave. Especially a founder who has, frequently, cheated death by the skin of his very white teeth. Branson hears the question so often it doesn't faze him in the slightest.

"Obviously, I do everything I can to try to avoid making mistakes, but I can sleep well at night if something goes wrong as long as I worked day and night to avoid it…I can then put it behind me and move onto the next thing. If I couldn't, I certainly wouldn't have this many companies! We've obviously made lots of mistakes…you try to learn from them and, fortunately, when it comes to ballooning and boating, they didn't cost me my life.

"It is impossible to run a business without taking risks," Branson says, "and Virgin would not be the company it is today if risks had not been taken. The very idea of entrepreneurship not only conjures up thoughts about starting up businesses and building them, but also the more frightening prospect of taking risks and failing. It's the last part that puts so many people off taking a leap into the unknown and working for themselves.

"Most importantly, management is about exactly what it says: 'managing.' To manage, you have to make decisions about people, events unfolding, and you usually have to spend money in order to make more. One of the sad realities of big business is that often people tend to forget the bit about making decisions, which is why so many large companies seem to suffer from inertia. One of the reasons that we run Virgin as a series of independent businesses is precisely to keep people focused on managing their individual companies and keep the decision process fluid. It's worked for us."

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