I wasn’t able to attend the kickoff event for the OPEN Adventures in Entrepreneurship conference last night, so I’m really excited to finally read the transcript. If the event was half as good as this transcript reads, it was an outstanding success, and amazing time:
Jackie Gleason Theater
1700 Washington Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome President of Open from American Express, Susan Sabbott.
Ms. Sobbott: Good evening. Welcome. Open is the American Express team dedicated exclusively to the success of small business owners. We are thrilled to have you, our best customers, here with us this evening. Welcome to Adventures in Entrepreneurship.
As I look around this beautiful theater it quickly becomes evident that Miami businesses are poised for growth. In fact, according to a recent Open survey, more than half of you expect your business to grow over the next six months. Roughly two-thirds of Miami businesses are planning to hire employees to fund and create that additional growth. That figure is almost double the national average.
At last count, small businesses represent an astonishing 99.7 percent of all firms that have employees. Small businesses create up to 80 percent of all new jobs in the United States, employ half of everyone who doesn’t work for the government, and are responsible for half of the output of this country. These are awesome statistics. As small business goes, so goes the national economy.
As accomplished entrepreneurs you know that successful business is all about relationships. Success is often driven by how close a business stays to its customers, to its suppliers, and to its community. In these times there is no business, big or small, that isn’t dependent upon technology, and as technology advances to keep us in touch it can also threaten to isolate us from each other. E-mail, instant messaging, webcasts, of course cell phones, while impressive in their power to connect, if over used they can create distance.
In today’s society businesses that value the human touch, the physical connection, businesses that value the art of human interaction, the ones that really know how to ask probing questions, those that listen carefully to customers and their needs, these are the businesses that will thrive. That’s why I wanted tonight to be about conversation. We want to offer you the opportunity to come together and have a conversation with each other.
More than 25 percent of businesses in Miami tell us that they spend over half their time networking. You are surrounded tonight by hundreds of entrepreneurs from all corners of the booming South Florida business community. You represent an array of diversity, of talent, of knowledge and of experience, and we have created an opportunity for you to exchange information, advise, contacts and, of course, business cards.
Tonight we also invite you to join us in a conversation with our very special guest, Sir Richard Branson.
Richard just came in from Los Angeles where he opened the west coast flagship Virgin Megastore. We are so pleased to have Richard with us here tonight. He exemplifies what it means to be a free agent. He’s gone out on his own, created his own business model, and developed a brand that is synonymous with personal customer experience. He’s taken risks and failed, I’m sure, on many a venture and become extraordinarily successful on the ones that we know so well. He’s an innovator and an incredibly savvy business person, owning over 200 companies in 30 countries. He exudes boundless energy and passion, not only for his own ideas, but also for those of entrepreneurs who share an appreciation for the grand possibilities, like commercializing space travel. As Inc. Magazine puts it, “Richard is game for anything, in fact, everything.”
We invited Richard because, like Open, he believes in deepening relationships with customers through personally asking them questions and listening carefully. We have watched him not only meet customer needs, but often anticipate and exceed them well ahead of his competition.
It is not only our pleasure this evening to have with us an entrepreneur of such stature, but we also welcome a profoundly accomplished journalist in Jane Pauley.
Jane has interviewed some of the most intriguing personalities of our time. Is Jane peeking out? Jane has interviewed music artists like Madonna, Metallica, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, political powerhouse Hillary Clinton, just to name a few. I’m next on her list actually.
We are privileged tonight to share in Jane’s conversation with Richard Branson. Please join me in welcoming Jane Pauley.
Ms. Pauley: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Should I get on this side of you, I think?
Ms. Sobbott: Yeah. Thank you.
Ms. Okay. And, ladies and gentlemen, now I welcome retailer, wine maker, round the world balloonist, maybe oil tycoon, and certainly adventurer in entrepreneurship, Sir Richard Branson.
Mr. Branson: Thank you. Thank you. Hold on.
Ms. Pauley: Thank you.
Mr. Branson: Thank you.
Ms. Pauley: So, Richard and I have been together here in this kind of a set up, except that when he appeared on my ill-fated but otherwise well thought of television show I sat there and you sat here and the significance of that was that this is my good side, so finally — all right, so, here we are, the Jackie Gleason Theater, it’s practically levitating with entrepreneurial spirit. Success is the common denominator that brings us here but, as you know probably better than I do, in business success is a moving target. All the more fitting that we gather around this living legend here, an action figure if there ever was one, the Virgin billionaire, an adventure tycoon — I got these from Google, by the way, that’s how you’re known — a man who has made enough to be called a billionaire, a self-made man at that, 2.1, 2.2, what is it these days? It sounds better in dollars than pounds though, does it not?
Mr. Branson: It does. Well, actually the dollar’s not doing that well these days.
Ms. Pauley: But does it sound better?
Mr. Branson: It does sound better.
Ms. Pauley: It does sound better. There are more billions, if you will.
How much more are you worth than Donald Trump? Oh, who’s counting? But we are.
Mr. Branson: His television show does well.
Ms. Pauley: Yes. I really loved your show.
Mr. Branson: Thank you.
Ms. Pauley: It was terrifying to watch, but it was really, it was actually very, very, good.
Mr. Branson: We had a lot of fun making it.
Ms. Pauley: I don’t know —
Mr. Branson: We actually — we actually have some of the contestants in the audience I bumped into earlier.
Ms. Pauley: Oh, really. Yeah, they survived. Congratulations. You lived to tell.
I don’t know how much you —
Audience Member: We can’t hear you.
Ms. Pauley: Pardon?
Audience Member: We can’t hear you.
Ms. Pauley: You can’t hear me? See, I never hear that at home. Mom, we can’t hear you. How’s that, do you hear me? Because I’m going to have to vamp for a while.
Mr. Branson: Okay. How many —
Ms. Pauley: What are we going to do while we vamp? Because I can’t do sign language, I don’t know how. That’s better? Do I have to turn my head and talk like this —
Mr. Branson: Hello.
Ms. Pauley: — or is that —
Audience Member: We can’t hear, Richard.
Mr. Branson: Would this be better?
Ms. Pauley: Is it this?
Mr. Branson: All right. We’ll get rid of the other — we’ll get rid of the other microphones. Is that better?
Audience Member: Yeah.
Mr. Branson: Okay.
Ms. Pauley: Was my microphone equally — this is better for you, too? I feel like I should sing something. All right.
Now, I don’t know how much you actually know about Richard Branson, other than, you know, the adventure, the success, the billions, etcetera, etcetera. Sir Richard —
Audience Member: The lion heart.
Ms. Pauley: — the lion heart. Thank you very much. Would you like to sit here? You’re beautifully dressed. I think that’s lovely.
So, we’re going to begin near the beginning and I would like you to tell us two stories, one story from your childhood that says something about how unlikely your success was, and then another story that explains it.
Could you do that?
Mr. Branson: Oh, well I think if you had been my schoolmasters at school you definitely would have written me off from a very early age.
I think I’m mildly dyslexic and I would just literally look at — look at sheets of questions, math questions or whatever, and just could not fathom what was going on, and so at quite a young age decided, you know, to put school behind me and leave.
On the other hand, I had incredible loving family, enormous support from the family, and my mum would never let me watch television, you know, would never let me go and watch what other people were doing, I had to do everything myself. And so, you know, she would, you know, put me on a bicycle and tell me to go and ride 600 miles or 400 miles and then — and I was only nine or ten years old. And so she — and then, you know, when I’d come home, you know, a little bit of congratulations but not that much, it was sort of get on with the next thing, and so — so I think she had quite a lot of influence.
Ms. Pauley: You, under — I mean, seriously, how old were you when she put you out of the car and told you to find your way home?
Mr. Branson: Yeah, well I think she would have been arrested today if she had done it, but I was — I think I was about five or six years old. I was going down to my grandparents’ house and suddenly she stopped the car about five miles from — from — it was right in the countryside — and said, look, you can find your own way there and, of course, I promptly got lost and ended up in a farmer’s house and actually I’ve never seen my mother so worried, later on understandably, but so sometimes maybe she went too — maybe slightly too far extreme in order to get me to stand on my own two feet.
Ms. Pauley: But, having survived that, you flourished and you thrived with a confidence, with resilience, resourcefulness.
Mr. Branson: Yes, I mean I think, yeah, I mean from — perhaps partly because I was dyslexic I had to try to prove myself in other ways and, in fact, sometimes if you have a slight disability in life, you know, you can — you then excel in other ways and — and I didn’t like school. I mean I didn’t like school cause I couldn’t do school, but I just I felt that, you know, the way we were being taught was not the best way. And, you know, I decided that I would like to — to start a magazine to try to express what I didn’t like about it and try to change it.
Ms. Pauley: What did you call this magazine?
Mr. Branson: The magazine was called Student and it was the time of Vietnam and Biafra and students marching on the streets and — you know, in France, and I’m afraid you and I are at a similar generation so you’ll remember the days.
Ms. Pauley: You’re saying the word Student was loaded with freight and in a magazine was very timely.
Mr. Branson: Loaded with freight?
Ms. Pauley: Well, with political and —
Mr. Branson: Yeah, it was basically, you know, we disagreed with the Vietnamese war, for instance, and we were campaigning against the Vietnamese war. You know, if Iraq was about to be invaded by Brittain and America I suspect we would have disagreed with that as well and we would have written about it.
Ms. Pauley: How old were you when you published this magazine?
Mr. Branson: I was 15 and I didn’t have any money to pay the printers and the paper manufacturers and so I used the school phone box to sell advertising. So I’d ring up Coca-Cola and say, well, I’ve just got an advert from Pepsi, so would you like to come in as well, and it’s the only way you can get to young people. And anyway, somehow or another I managed to bag enough advertising to pay the printing and the paper costs.
Ms. Pauley: Backstage we had a little conversation about our age, which is almost exactly the same.
Mr. Branson: 35.
Ms. Pauley: 35, yes.
Mr. Branson: Don’t laugh.
Ms. Pauley: I am — I’m one week shy of my 35th birthday and Sir Richard just turned 35 in July and we both have children in their 20’s.
Mr. Branson: We started young, yeah.
Ms. Pauley: If you have children anywhere near there, too, you know how it seems to me that children are taking a while to grow up. At 15 you were already on your way. By the time you were 22 where were you?
Mr. Branson: Well, quite a lot had happen in those seven years. The — yeah, we started with the magazine and — and again it was because it was the late 60’s it was a time when we were socially aware or socially becoming aware, so we were sympathetic. If somebody, you know — you know, it was the time that the gays could actually admit that they were gay and it was natural and, you know, it wasn’t frowned upon, and if somebody had a, you know, sexual problem they could actually talk about it and — and so it was a much more — much more understanding society, I think, that came about as a result of that.
Ms. Pauley: But did you think you were an entrepreneur and you were directed toward, you know, one of the world’s most amazing business careers at that age?
Mr. Branson: I was never, ever interested in becoming a businessman or an entrepreneur. I was interested in —
Ms. Pauley: I’m sorry life didn’t turn out the way you wanted.
Mr. Branson: It’s a tough life, I know.
I was interested in creating — creating things that I could be proud of and so, you know, I was interested in being an editor of a magazine, things that I could be proud of, and so, you know, I was interested in being an editor of a magazine, but in order to be an editor of a magazine I had to become a publisher as well. I had to pay the bills. I had to worry about the printing and the paper manufacturing and the distribution of that magazine.
Ms. Pauley: Does that sound familiar to anybody here?
Mr. Branson: Yeah, most people, I think. They — and — but at the same time, you know, again, because I was a ’60s lad, you know, we set up an advisory center when I was about 16, 17 to, you know, help people who were writing in to the magazine and, you know, friends of mine who, you know, didn’t know where to go to get the help and, you know, that center’s, you know, still — still going many, many years later, so I think that, you know, getting a balance between, you know, trying to set up things that one could be proud of, but then if you make money from them, you know, plowing it back into things you feel are needed.
Ms. Pauley: Catch us up. At some point your career has to take fire. What caused it to really take fire for you?
Mr. Branson: Well, music was something I liked and there were — there weren’t many independent record companies at that time. You had record companies like Decca and EMI and — I can’t even remember the names, Phonogram or whatever, but — and so we decided — I decided to — well, and first of all start a little record shop above a shoe shop selling music and nobody had sold records at a discount before. They’d all sold them exactly the same price. So we sold the kind of music that we liked. We called it Virgin Records. I was —
Ms. Pauley: And why did you do that?
Mr. Branson: Cause I was, what, 15, 16 years old and inexperienced at business as well.
Ms. Pauley: You couldn’t call it sex. That would have worked, too.
Just moving into —
Mr. Branson: But anyway, how we took off — sorry — it was simply — it was simply that — I mean we didn’t. I mean most people in this room I think have started businesses, or a lot of them have and they’ll know that for years and years and years the only word that matters is survival. I mean it’s hell building a business. I mean it’s much easier for me now with 300 businesses than it was in those days with one business and it’s — you know, it’s all to do with survival. You’re fighting to survival the whole time and you’re fighting to create something that you’re proud of and that, you know, that you really believe in and all the people who work with you believe in, but survival is very tricky and most people don’t survive. I mean there’s a very, very thin dividing line between success and failure.
Ms. Pauley: I can remember in my life, and I won’t tell the story because that’s not why we’re here, but a moment when you have that epiphany that it’s going to be different, things will never be the same. Did you have such a moment?
Mr. Branson: It came a lot longer, a lot later in my life, because any success I had I immediately, in a sense, put it on the line again and took — I mean I had — when we launched our first albums — sorry — Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and it was — it was very successful. And he was a young artist who couldn’t get any other record companies to put his music out and it was just — he didn’t have any vocals on it and they said how can you, you know, how can you put an album out without vocals on it, but it was a beautiful piece of music and we decided to form a record company to put his music out and it was very successful, but we very quickly, you know, sort of turned ourselves upside down again and started reinvesting all that money into other bands, new artists, and so we never — never willing to sit still and say, you know, we’ve made it, we’re over the hill yet.
Ms. Pauley: The irony in — your innovation is what you are known for, whether it was the selling records, discount that, you know, who thought of that, doing things differently, innovating is really your middle name, and I find it so ironic that you say that one of the secrets of your success, remember this was the guy who hated school, is learning new things.
Mr. Branson: Yes. I mean life is one long learning process and I’ve, you know, having not gone to university, not really gone to school, you know — I’m so sorry — and I — and like to, you know, immerse myself in — in subjects, and if I’m setting up a new business I’ll spend, you know, three or four months learning everything there is about that business, everything there is about that subject and then I will find good people to run it on a day-to-day basis, but whilst they’re running it at least I know what they’re talking about when they come back to me. And I mean the last two months, for instance, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the oil industry, looking at whether there is alternative to the oil — the conventional industry, so can we actually bring the price of oil down and, at the same time, benefit the environment and — and, you know, at the end of the two months of looking at it all I believe there is a way. And we’re going — we’ve now set up a team of people to, you know, pursue that and so — so and — so it’s life’s most fascinating learning process and if you’re in business it is enormously fascinating as well, because business is all about life. Most people — you know, most people come in contact with business, whether you’re in a hospital, you know a hospital is a business generally, you know, whether you’re in a shop, whether you’re on a plane, I mean, you know, business is life.
Ms. Pauley: I think the reason we’re all here is really to learn. You come to see what Sir Richard Branson has to say that might — that might have you leaving, you know, this aisle with a new idea, you know, can’t wait to try something, to put something in practice.
Branding is something that you have done as successfully as, you know, as anybody you can imagine. Would you define what branding is to you?
Mr. Branson: It’s quite amusing actually because I — somebody recently analyzed the name Branson and actually said it was — it goes back many years to Branson was somebody who branded cattle many years back. But, so I mean a brand, at Virgin we like to aspire to building, you know, the most respected brand in the world, so you’ve got to have something to aspire to do and that’s, you know, what I’d love us to be able to do. And the brand is only as good as your products, so, I mean if people have a good experience on Virgin Atlantic or if they have a good experience on Virgin trains or, you know, if they have a Virgin mobile phone and they can get straight through to our people and they’re well looked after and then they’ll — they’ll try the next product that we launch. And so brand is something that you build over many years and you build and it’s something that it’s very important to protect and to keep trust with people.
Ms. Pauley: It has so much to do with your personal image. What is the difference, if any, between your image as an action figure and tycoon billionaire and adventurer and so forth and the brand of the Virgin Group?
Mr. Branson: Well, I mean going back many years when we were starting — 21 years ago when we were starting Virgin Atlantic we were competing, you know, with the likes of Pan Am, TWA, British Airways and we didn’t have the advertising to get out there and — and spend to put Virgin on the map. And Freddy Laker, who had gone bankrupt prior to us starting, sat me down and said, look, Richard, you know, I know, you know, you’re not actually that good at public speaking and — but you’ve got to get out there and use yourself to try to put, you know, put Virgin on the map. And — and try to go — try to make sure you get on the front pages, not the back pages, so for a number of years, you know, I would do all sorts of mad things to get Virgin put on the map and including sort of having been plucked out of the sea five times by helicopters, but —
Ms. Pauley: That was in connection with the balloon —
Mr. Branson: That was in connection with, you know, first of all trying to be the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon and sort of succeeding, and then the Pacific and sort of succeeding, and then many trips to try to go around the word in a balloon, and I saw Hawaii, I saw the Alaska, I saw lots of places.
Ms. Pauley: But — but being plucked out of the sea by a rescue helicopter five times, some people might have thought that wouldn’t be good for the brand, he didn’t succeed, he failed, but you didn’t feel that way.
Mr. Branson: No, it was interesting cause before we — I mean the very first time I did an adventure was to try to bring the blue ribbon back from America to Britain, which is for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by boat, and we got into a ferocious storm and we sank 100 miles from England. And, in fact, was picked up by a banana boat that was heading — heading — heading back the way we had just come, back to Jamaica. And this lovely lady, you know, as I came up sort of very bedraggled and she — she had — they had all — they were all about to sit down to dinner, there were sort of a few English, very smart English people with their dinner jackets and heading off to the Caribbean and — and a lot — and she said, you poor boy, she said you can’t have even seen your son yet. And I said, you know, my son’s not to due to be born for another week and she said, well, actually I’ve got a surprise for you, he was born during the storm last night and would you like to see a picture of him and there he was on the front page of the newspaper, so —
Ms. Pauley: I would have killed you.
Mr. Branson: Yeah, she wasn’t very happy, but in England people actually — you know, people are always successful the first time round, almost, you know, people almost think, hum, you know, he’s almost too goody good shoes. So actually failing — failing —
Ms. Pauley: Americans are different. Americans are different. We want you to win the Super Bowl the first season you have a franchise.
Mr. Branson: I’ll do better next time. I promise you. No, but it’s — so I think I used myself to put Virgin on the map. I had a lot of fun doing it in the process. And now I think, you know, Virgin — you know, Virgin is established as Virgin, so, you know, if the balloon goes down I think Virgin will — will hopefully carry on.
Ms. Pauley: This evident fearlessness, are you in fact as fearless as you look? What’s the scaredest you’ve ever been physically?
Mr. Branson: Well, for those who saw the reality show, and one or two of them are here, when we — when I was meant to jump over Victoria Falls and I wasn’t — and all these other kids had no problems, so I must be beginning to get — fear must be beginning to come in, but —
Ms. Pauley: I want to stop here just a second, because this is a very hard working group of people who there may not be four people in the audience who actually saw your show, you know —
Mr. Branson: That’s true.
Ms. Pauley: — cause they’re working. So —
Mr. Branson: All right.
Ms. Pauley: — a little description is in order about why you were literally flinging yourself with a bungee cord into Victoria Falls, you’ve seen the pictures of Victoria Falls, why did you think you needed to do that?
Mr. Branson: Why did I think I needed to do it? Well, I was just setting our contestants a nice little challenge to see how they would cope. The stupid thing was at the beginning of the shows I said that I would do anything that they — where they did. And so we would tie one of the contestants six feet off the Victoria Falls and then their teammates had to jump and catch — be caught by that contestant. If they didn’t catch them they plummeted 300 feet. And anyway, so in the end I had to do it. My legs turned to jelly, but —
Ms. Pauley: You plummeted 300 feet.
Mr. Branson: I plummeted 300 feet.
Ms. Pauley: Yeah. This fearlessness, the thrill seeking, adventure, whatever, does this permeate the entire Virgin Group or just the boss?
Mr. Branson: Fortunately, because we’re in the airline business and the train business and one or two other transportation businesses, you’ll be pleased to know it doesn’t permeate the whole Virgin Group, and despite the name of our company our planes and trains do go the whole way.
Ms. Pauley: What would a job interview with you be like, in the unlikely event that you — that I was interviewing for something, what were you looking for?
Mr. Branson: The number one thing that matters, especially if you’re going to be manager at Virgin, is how good you are with people. If you’re — if you’re good with people and you’ve got — you know, and you really care, genuinely care about people then I’m sure we could find a job for you at Virgin. I think, you know, that, you know, that the companies that look after their people are the companies that do really well. I’m sure we’d like a few other attributes, but that would be the most important one.
Ms. Pauley: You’ve said that before and I want to stop there and pursue — oh, clap. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to leave some pent up applause there. Who knows what happens with pent up applause.
A company that takes care of their people, everything else takes care of itself, I kind of butchered that, but that’s what you think and what you say.
Mr. Branson: I mean it’s not actually that surprising a thing to say. I mean a company, you know, a company is people. I mean it’s nothing other than people. I mean you can — I mean banks can have buildings and airlines can have planes but, you know, I mean if you say — you know, take two airlines, you know, they’re both going to have planes most likely from Boeing, maybe from Airbus but, you know, a lot else about those planes are going to be similar, but in the end, you know, it’s the people, if the people are proud of the company they work for, if they’re proud of the product they’re delivering, if they’re well looked after they’re going to do it with a smile.
Ms. Pauley: How do you measure being well looked after? What are the markers that tell you that the company is looking after? I’m not clear on whether it’s just a lot of at-a-boys or vacation time or bonuses or what.
Mr. Branson: I think if you actually talk to people you’ll find, and if you ask them, you know, what is the most important thing about working for a company they most likely won’t cite money. I mean money obviously is important. Holidays obviously is important. But I think it’s actually much more down to things like, you know, am I being listened to, you know, I’ve got a good idea, is anybody going to listen to that good idea. And — or, you know, or am I just going to be ignored. I mean am I just a cog in the wheel or am I a real person. And I don’t think people, you know, if people really feel that they’re wanted at a company and they really feel that they are listened to and that they can contribute I just don’t think you’ll find that they’ll leave a company.
Ms. Pauley: Did you mean to imply a company that takes care of its employees, everything else will take care of itself, that taking care of employees is a priority greater than customer service?
Mr. Branson: Yes. I mean I think it actually —
Ms. Pauley: He said yes.
Mr. Branson: No, I mean it takes — in the end it’s one and the same thing, if you actually put employees first, customers second and shelled is third all three will equal out. The — you know, if you — and sometimes — you know, I mean sometimes you’re going to have tough decisions that management may have to break that rule. I mean, if, you know, if a company’s got into financial difficulties or something then — then they may, in order to save, you know, thousands of jobs have to take tough decisions, but generally speaking I think if the mind set is make sure that you have care for your people first everything else follows.
Ms. Pauley: Does everybody know that in business?
Mr. Branson: I think some — some companies could be better at it and some companies are better at it than others.
Ms. Pauley: Yeah.
Mr. Branson: They —
Ms. Pauley: I want to move into a slightly different realm and that’s growing a business.
You have got a successful business already but you know you can’t stay put, cause in business staying put means falling back, so nobody is shrewder about growing a business, I think, than Richard Branson. You said earlier that you now preside over an empire of 350 companies?
Mr. Branson: 300, give or take a —
Ms. Pauley: Give or take. Whatever. You have more companies than a few people here may have customers, I think.
You have spoken about Virgin Mobile, I guess that’s how you would say it, British, Virgin Mobile cell phones. What does the world need with another telephone company?
Mr. Branson: Well, when we set it up you had four companies, when we set it up in Brittain originally, and everybody was tied into contracts and their contracts were fairly onerous and that’s the kind of situation where Virgin does best. I mean we — you know, we, you know, like to play the David versus the Goliath. If people are taking the consumer for a ride we like to come in and change that.
Ms. Pauley: So it’s not just that, you know, you know we want to take on the big guy, it’s you want to take on the big guy who is doing something wrong?
Mr. Branson: Well, I mean wrong is — I mean often they’re actually shooting themselves in the foot, so if you make an excessive amount of money out of somebody you’re leaving yourself open for a brand like Virgin to come in and take you on and we’ve done that in an enormous amount of different industries where you’ve got, you know, either a cozy cartel or duopolies or whatever and, you know, we’ve gone in with a proposition which resonates with the public and Virgin Mobile in the UK, you know, you’ve got five or six million customers very quickly who saw that, you know, they didn’t want contracts, you know, they wanted a better deal.
Ms. Pauley: So what do they do without contracts, how do you do that?
Mr. Branson: We brought in something called pre — prepaid phones, you know, so they didn’t have to have a contract and they could pay as much as they wanted or pay — you know, only pay when they use their phones.
Ms. Pauley: Well, this is all very interesting, but when you pick a target for growth and create a new organization like Virgin Mobile do you set the bar, we’re going to cut them off at the knees, Goliath is coming down or something else?
Mr. Branson: Can you say the question again?
Ms. Pauley: Well, is your goal to topple Goliath or just to —
Mr. Branson: Well, our goal, I mean —
Ms. Pauley: — take them down an inch or two?
Mr. Branson: Our goal is — well, let’s just take Virgin Atlantic, 21 years ago. I mean I flew a lot on other people’s airlines because I had record companies all over the world and I didn’t like the experience. I mean, in fact, it was ghastly. I mean, you know, you would sit on TWA or Pan Am, you’d have people who obviously hated the job dumping a cold bit of chicken on your lap, and they — you would have no seat back video or no entertainment system and, you know, they were doing you a favor and it was a horrible experience. It hasn’t actually improved that much over here, but anyway — so, you know, I decided I wanted to try to create the kind of airline that I’d like to fly and so we got one 747 and, you know, we tried to introduce a comfortable seating and we introduced seat back videos in all our economy class seats, and — some years before anybody else did. And, you know, we had stand up bars in our upper class and manicurists and masseuses and anyway we created something which was pretty special.
Ms. Pauley: Now, I’m trying to — do you know how hard it is to flip through my little cards here holding this in my left hand?
Mr. Branson: Let me hold that for you and I’ll carry on talking while you’re doing that.
Ms. Pauley: No, I’ll find it. What I’m looking for — what I’m looking for, because we did, you know, kind of — not that I ever do anything in such an orderly fashion, but this morning in the business section of the New York Times, which I read, yeah, I do, I read it, was an article, a column called On The Road and it was appropo of our conversation today, I read it because I recognized quickly it was, and it included a reference to a joke and I will tell the joke. I need my glasses. I’ve been ignoring the fact that I needed my glasses for some time now.
Mr. Branson: If it’s a joke I told many years ago, does it have anything to do with billionaires becoming millionaires?
Ms. Pauley: No, no millionaires involves. Okay. So we’re flying first class on an elite mileage upgrade, you’re familiar with that I’m sure, and the attendant comes by and says, will you be having dinner with us tonight? What are my choices, the passenger asks? Yes or no.
All right. So let me tell you what the — there’s more significance coming here. This was an airline conference and the New York Times writer was the keynote speaker. There were no American airlines represented, but the Cafe Pacific, which I gather is rather well thought of, did a presentation featuring a cartoon. I will have to describe it to you. Okay. A gnarly flight attendant with pot in hand standing beside a passenger says, tea or coffee? Coffee, says the passenger. Wrong, it’s tea, the attendant says.
Mr. Branson: I’m surprised if she had pot in hand that she didn’t ask for pot, but —
Ms. Pauley: Okay. So, in the article, now this is the New York Times this morning, just kind of — just by happenstance I saw it, and Cafe Pacific is quoted because this cartoon happened to be something that this woman presented. In a paragraph in the column though it said something about Cafe Pacific, Virgin Atlantic, one of the most respected foreign airlines — Virgin Atlantic, one of the most respected foreign airlines, which I think we can assume means one of the most respected airlines, with manicures and massages and, you know, parties or whatever you’re having, you’ve created something that is, in business circles, now one of the most respected. You surely have reached a goal.
Mr. Branson: I think, I mean if you’re a small — I mean going back to your question about whether we would — whether we set out to topple the Goliaths, when we set up 21 years ago we were competing with TWA, Pan Am, Eastern, People’s Express —
Ms. Pauley: Is anybody counting?
Mr. Branson: And there were 12 —
Ms. Pauley: Are you old enough to remember?
Mr. Branson: Anyway, there were 12 other airlines and they were all much, much bigger than Virgin Atlantic and we were not out to topple them, we were out to survive. They toppled themselves and every single one of them disappeared. And I think the — the thing to learn from that is the best — you know, the best never — never — never disappear. The best clubs are still here 21 years later, the best hotels, the best airlines, and so it is actually worthwhile not listening to the accountants sometimes. I mean accountants forever have said, you know, if you’d take out the bar in your plane you can put another six seats in. If you don’t have four limousines for every upper class passenger you can make another, you know, $450 per ticket. If you don’t do this, you know, if you don’t have the masseuses, if you don’t have this, you don’t have that, but, you know, by ignoring that, by creating an airline that, you know, everybody who works for that airline really believe in, they’ll kill for it, when they go home at nighttimes they’ll say, you know, I work for Virgin Atlantic and I’m really proud of it, then — you know, then you’ll get through the Sars, you’ll get through the September 11th, you’ll get through, well, hopefully even chicken flu, which, you know, may be coming up next.
Ms. Pauley: Is the company profitable?
Mr. Branson: Yes, it is profitable. It’s actually not my reason for being. I mean it’s — you know, making profits is important because it keeps all our people in jobs and, you know, it keeps what we — what we’ve created going, but, you know, what we’re — what I get my — what I’m proud about doing is creating companies which we’re really proud of, you know, which we can really be proud of and a byproduct of that hopefully will be that they’ll be profitable and be able to pay the bills.
Ms. Pauley: I’m trying to think of all the other companies where the boss says, well, profits, I’m not really all that interested in profits.
Mr. Branson: Profits are — profits are important, but — I mean we are a private group of companies, we’re not a public group of companies, and we make enough profits. I mean I can afford to send my children to school, I can afford to get good medical education for them, and so, you know, life’s more than that now and, you know, we are trying to make a difference and, you know, not just in business, but in — you know, we have a charitable foundation which is doing — which is very important to us and I think it’s important if you’re running businesses to — especially if you’ve got the wealth of — you know, the wealth of a small nation, which some of the bigger brands have got now, that you are more than just a business.
Ms. Pauley: We will get back to that.
Culture, I think it’s something that’s always interested me. I spent 30 years at NBC and when people would come to the company from one of the other networks they would often, you know, remark on it was so nice. Well, I mean I worked at NBC and I didn’t think it was all that nice, but apparently other networks had a culture that was, you know, pretty harsh, pretty intimidating, competitive, threatening, and for some reason, though various corporate owners would come and go, the culture stayed the same.
How do you create culture or do you — can you create it? Does it just exist out of the unique mix of the people you combine?
Mr. Branson: I think you have — I think you have to work on — work on creating an environment that is pleasant for people to work in. I mean I think there are some American companies that are, you know, too quick to fire and — you know, fire and hire. You know, if the person at the top is forever changing that’s very unsettling for everybody else further down. So, you know, I have a staff party at my home — well, it used to be every year. Now it’s about 70 or 80,000 people turn up, so we do it over a six day period and it’s — and it’s quite hard work, so we do it —
Ms. Pauley: Over a what?
Mr. Branson: Six day period.
Ms. Pauley: It’s a Bacchanal.
Mr. Branson: But it’s — but it’s important. I mean people come with their families, their children and, you know, we have everybody — we have enormous tented village. We have, you know, music playing and a lot of fun had by all. Now, we —
Ms. Pauley: How many employees do you have now?
Mr. Branson: We have about 50 — 50,000. 50,000 around the world. So when — you know, so when we took over, for instance, a chunk of Brittain’s rail network, those people had worked for a National rail company for many years. The idea of them being invited to a party was just something that they couldn’t conceive of.
Ms. Pauley: I can — I’m just trying to think of what the culture would have been like at the National railway.
Mr. Branson: Not easy.
Ms. Pauley: No, not good.
Mr. Branson: So, but it’s little things like that which make — you know, make a big difference. I mean I’ve — you know, I encourage my staff to write to me if they’ve got problems and even, you know, tiny little problems and I get something like 50 letters a day from people who work for us and make sure that, you know, those letters get answered first. And, again, I can find out exactly what’s going on in the companies because, you know, if they feel a decision’s been made, you know, that they disagree with I hear about it and, you know, they’ll know that they’ll get a personal response from me. So, you know, again, it’s things like that I think that make a difference.
Ms. Pauley: Are you a micromanager?
Mr. Branson: Detail is important, but equally learning to delegate is extremely important as well so, I mean from early on, you know, you can’t run 300 companies yourself. I learned the art of delegation and we’ve got very good people running all the companies.
Ms. Pauley: What is the art of — how do you practice the art of delegation?
Mr. Branson: Well, first of all, we don’t have an empire as such all under one — you know, one big group. We have 300 separate companies. They may have the Virgin brand, but they stand and fall on their own two feet. We’ve never actually let a company go bankrupt because our reputation is everything. So, you know we — not every company has been successful, but we’ve always made sure that all the debtors and creditors are paid. But what we do is we basically, if we’re setting up a new business, I will find a new chief executive, give them a stake in the business so that they can become a millionaire, or hopefully a multi-millionaire as a result of running the business, and give them a lot of freedom, you know, to go out and both make mistakes and hopefully make good things.
Ms. Pauley: I’ve spent a career ignoring time cues and I’m looking at one now, because I do want to save some time for some questions from — from the audience, but I don’t want to get to the end without having talked specifically about customer service, which is, after all, what those airline jokes were about, you know, the yes or no and, you know, wrong, it was tea, and that’s something everybody here has in common, they all have customers, whether, you know, you’re a contractor or a physician group or, you know, all the innumerable enterprises, one way or another everybody does have customers.
What are your tips, if you will, for providing good customer service, something that our audience might be able to practice at home? At home, you know what I mean.
Mr. Branson: I mean I — having met a number of the audience before and also knowing one or two of them and knowing what successful businesses they already run, I’m sure most of them practice them anyway, but I mean I — I’d make sure I don’t get, you know, stuck behind a desk and spend my time on a telephone behind a desk. I make sure that I spend most of my time out and about and experiencing my businesses, so — and so if I’m on a Virgin Atlantic plane I make sure I have a notebook in my pocket. And I make sure that I get out and talk to all my staff, make sure I talk to all the passengers, make sure I, you know, I shake the hands of all the passengers when they get on board the plane and, you know, in — you know, if you meet 500 passengers on a regular basis cause you fly a lot you will — you’ll find out what’s going on. You’ll find out if there’s any little details that are not right. It’s getting every single little detail right that makes, you know, for an exceptional airline or an exceptional record. And I write the — most — an awful lot of our passengers on our planes and we do letters — letters — well, all our business class passengers get a letter from myself and I encourage them to write to me. A sample of our economy class passengers get a letter from myself encouraging them to write to me and when the do write to me, again, I make sure that I answer those letters.
Ms. Pauley: It’s real.
Mr. Branson: It’s real.
Ms. Pauley: You’ve got to make it real.
Mr. Branson: It’s not a — you know, they get a — you know a circulized letter back. And it’s hard work. I mean it means getting up, you know, sometimes at 6 in the morning. I’ll get somebody else who will maybe do a first draft, because I don’t like having to deal with lots of letters —
Ms. Pauley: I think —
Mr. Branson: — I make sure I get these problems sorted.
Ms. Pauley: You know, I have to tell you, earlier this evening when — you can imagine a conference like this, Richard Branson arrives and there’s do this and be here. He was so, not crazy, but really, really anxious to get out and talk to you. I could see you were — you know, you want to be — yes, I’ll be happy to cooperate here, but your personal priority was genuinely wanting to be here. I thought that was pretty —
Mr. Branson: They’re my closest friends. I wanted to go say hello to them.
Ms. Pauley: Yeah. Do you know what I brought? I forgot, I had a prop here. I brought this from my hotel, which I will not name because it was, you know, a really, really nice hotel, I liked it a lot, but I was a little hungry and didn’t have time to order anything from room service so I went into the — the honor bar and pulled out what looked like little chocolates, little chocolates so — and I opened them which means it’s now mine, I don’t know whether it was $2 or $29, but now it’s mine. I ate one and it’s liquorice and anybody here that likes liquorice can have it. And I’m thinking what kind of crazy nutty customer service puts in a woman’s hand anything but chocolate? Anyway, so I think they’re very nice people, but I might write them a letter for their own good, kill the liquorice.
Some questions that we’ve got time for and I swear American Express is so beautifully organized, it just — I don’t even need my glasses to read these they’re so handsome.
Mr. Branson: How about the audience — does anybody want to stand up and ask the questions direct maybe? Enrique?
Ms. Pauley: Well?
Audience Member: (inaudible).
— television advertising budget goes to the internet. What’s your views on that? Online marketing.
Mr. Branson: Well, I think it’s interesting that only five years, four years ago that people were almost writing off the internet and how it’s really bouncing back. And there’s no question that the online marketing is now a real threat to, you know, to the TV companies and to the newspapers and I think it’s got a — it’s got a very powerful future and it’s something which we’re — we need to embrace. And I think if companies are not embracing it they’re making a big mistake.
Ms. Pauley: Last night you opened one of your Megastores in Los Angeles and it rained and it wouldn’t have rained online.
Mr. Branson: Exactly. That’s my point.
Ms. Pauley: Okay. There was — go right ahead.
Audience Member: Of all the airlines that were flying at the time you started Virgin Airlines how did you wind up getting financing and raising capital to start Virgin Airlines?
Mr. Branson: Well, we had a record company, Virgin Records, and fortunately we had signed a number of quite successful artists. We had, at the time, we had Phil Collins, we had Peter Gabriel, we had Culture Club, The Sex Pistols and bands — and also bands like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, so it really built a pretty formidable independent record company. And I remember at the hearing when we were trying to get commissioned to start an airline British Airways saying, you know, how on earth can you let this little company set up, you know, they’ll never have the financial strength to run an airline, and as it turned out our profits that particular year had been better — had been bigger than theirs, our record company profits, so they had to let us get up and going and — but so it was — I was using the record company’s resources and I didn’t — you know, my fellow directors thought I was absolutely and utterly mad to want to start an airline. We were in the music business and we were having a lot of fun in the music business and so I had to say to them, look, you know, I promise you I’m not going to bring the whole record company down, you know, we will protect the down side so we will do a deal with Boeing whereby if I’m wrong about the fact that the public would like Virgin Atlantic we’ll be able to hand the plane back at the end of the first 12 months, so the actual total risk of starting the airline would be say 15, $20,000,000, you know, we can just about afford that. And so protecting the down side obviously is critical in any business to make sure that you know that, you know, if it all goes wrong you can afford it. And we can’t always protect the down side, but it’s worth trying to and, as it turned out, at the end of the first 12 years (sic) people were flying Virgin Atlantic, they liked the experience so we got a second plane.
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
I just bought a Virgin Mobile phone.
Ms. Pauley: Pardon?
Audience Member: I just bought a Virgin Mobile phone.
Mr. Branson: Oh, fantastic. Bring it down.
Ms. Pauley: Oh, okay, you know what, while you’re on your way, bring it on down, why don’t you ask your question?
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
— successful, What would you say — I have a teenage son. What would you say (inaudible) would you encourage them to stay (inaudible).
Mr. Branson: I once sort of even hinted at that once on a radio interview and I had so many angry letters I’m never going to get drawn into that one again.
No, I think it’s obviously good to have an education — to have a formal education, because if, when you became an entrepreneur, you don’t succeed you’ve got something to fall back on. Hang on —
Audience Member: Sir Richard. Sir Richard —
Mr. Branson: Having said that nice conservative answer, the — I mean, yeah, I mean, as I said earlier, most entrepreneur, about 80 percent do actually go bankrupt, so it is actually quite a perilous — perilous path to go on. But what I think that people have to be careful of though is if they have a formal education there’s a danger that when they leave university at age 21 or 22 that they become quite conservative. That they may have a girlfriend, they may have a boyfriend and, you know, they may have a mortgage to pay and therefore they’re not willing to take risks. One of the advantages of leaving school at 15 or 16 is you don’t have a steady relationship. You don’t have a mortgage to pay. You’ve got nothing to lose. And interestingly almost all the successful entrepreneurs out of Brittain did leave school at 15 or 16. There are very, very few who actually went through the formal university education.
Ms. Pauley: Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.
Mr. Branson: Yeah, Bill Gates dropped out, so I think there’s nothing — nothing wrong with a formal education as long as you don’t let it stunt you if you want to become an entrepreneur when you actually go out and you are willing to take risk and you are willing to fall flat on your face and you are willing, you know, to have the embarrassment of actually going bankrupt, I mean, you know, although I’ve said we’ve never had that situation, there are a lot of very successful people in America who have been through a bankruptcy or two. You know, if you do go bankrupt try to make sure that if you build another company you pay back those creditors that, you know, that you hurt when you were — earlier on in your career, because your reputation is very important, so you can hold your head high, but try — you know, try to make sure that you are brave.
Ms. Pauley: I have a —
Audience Member: Your professional accomplishments are simply outstanding and inspirational. Can you comment on how you balance this with your personal life and family life and would you have done anything differently?
Mr. Branson: Where are you talking? Hello.
Ms. Pauley: In the back.
Mr. Branson: I’ve been extremely lucky. I was quite successful early on and so really from the time that — and I’d also learned the art of delegation early on, so by the time I had children I was able to push off on holiday with them when they had holidays and we managed to get a tiny little island down in the Caribbean where we could go and draw up the drawbridge and spend, you know, real time with family and friends and — and so we’ve managed to have a good balanced life and, as a result, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time with my kids and they’re level headed and, you know, great kids and I’m fortunately, you know, still happily married so it’s worked out — worked out great.
Ms. Pauley: I have to, if I can take things back at this point, because I think we are about to wind things up, but tomorrow you are going to Africa and I think in the sixth decade of your career still wanting to create things you have a new set of ideas that you’re pursuing. What are you doing in Africa?
Mr. Branson: Africa is — Africa is — has a big problem, a lot of big problems. And we have a charitable organization called Virgin Unite and we’ve got a fantastic team of people who work for that organization and we also, one of the reasons it’s called Virgin Unite is that it’s there to unite the 50,000 people who work for Virgin as well, but there are a lot of problems in Africa that needn’t exist and I think that, you know, this is where I think business people can actually, you know, look at problems perhaps differently than maybe charity workers and try to work out ways of attacking problems. You know, if you take malaria, as an example, in Africa you’ve got one and a half million people, one and a half million children a year die from malaria, about 750,000 pregnant women die from malaria every year. They die because they’re bitten by mosquito. So how do you — how do you stop the mosquitos biting them? There is no concerted campaign throughout Africa to deal with the mosquito problem and — and if every single person in Africa, and it sounds like a tall order but it’s actually not quite as tall as I think one might imagine, if every single person in Africa has a mosquito net which was impregnated with a substance which would kill the mosquitos over them and if you painted the walls with a substance which would also kill the mosquitos I think you could actually tackle the mosquito problem, the mosquito problem and therefore the malaria prolem, and this — I mean there’s just numerous problems in Africa. I mean AIDS is just terrifying. I mean you go to the hospitals in Africa and just rows and rows and rows of people dying. And if you walk around them, you know, you’ll see the average ward in any one morning has six empty beds from the people who died the night before. You’ve got mothers, you know, looking over their children and so on. So — so what we are actually in talks with United Nations and other people about is setting up a war room which can coordinate all the activities that’s taking place in Africa. And — and so, you know, if — if in Nigeria something’s working, you know, and the right team of people are there then, you know, the war room can push more resources into it and, if somewhere else it’s not working, you know, one moves the resources there. Anyway, Africa — Africa can be, you know, it can be beaten, the problems there can be beaten and it just needs an absolutely concerted effort. And I think that we’re, people at Virgin, you are going to do — play their bit anyway, so we’ll see.
Ms. Pauley: Well, we need people who think big —
Audience Member: Good evening, Sir Richard. Thank you for addressing this question.
Many of us have said I can do anything and we have failed. At what point in your life did you say to yourself that you could achieve anything and felt confident about it?
Mr. Branson: Well, I certainly don’t think I can achieve anything and feel confident about it. I mean I’m still nervous when I come out to talk to you tonight and — and — sorry. I don’t see — what time? That’s why I was nervous, see?
Anyway, I suppose about sort of 10 or 20 years ago, you know, once I felt that the companies that I had were financially secure that then enabled me to start thinking, you know, that we could achieve, you know, more than just — just being a money making machine, more than just running companies, and I think the next 20 years we’ll be making even greater effort in that respect and — and having a fantastic team of people around, you know, if you’ve got a great team of people around, even in bad times you most likely will be able to ride it through, so, you know, we had great, wonderful people at Virgin and that’s — you know, that’s anyway, the key, as I said earlier.
Ms. Pauley: Who here was planning to go to space with Virgin Galactica when the time comes?
Audience Member: I know I will.
Ms. Pauley: Really? Yeah.
Audience Member: Sir Richard, when do you know the right time to walk away?
Mr. Branson: I suspect I don’t.
Audience Member: Knowing that, you know, if you are, like yourself and myself, that you try, try, try, try, try, keep going, going, going, going, when is the right time to walk away? I mean is there a point to when you should walk away or do you just keep going?
Mr. Branson: No, it’s a very good question and — and, you know, if you have a number of companies, you know, being able to know when to cut your losses is a skill and it’s very difficult, particularly if you’re attached to the people, you know, to know — to know — to be hard enough actually sometimes to cut the losses of one company in order to maybe save some other companies. It’s something which I’m not particularly good at doing and I’m apt to go on far too long on occasions with companies when I, you know, when I should actually, you know, call it a day a lot earlier. And, you know, but having said that there have been some companies where we have stuck with it and we have actually turned them around and they’re still flourishing today, so I’m afraid it’s something which you’ll just — I’ll talk to you afterwards and you tell me what your situation is, but good luck.
Audience Member: Okay. Talking about teenage (inaudible) question, I’m sorry, first of all I want to know what (inaudible).
Mr. Branson: I just love life. I mean, you know, I love every second of it. I love people. And your second part?
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
Ms. Pauley: Richard, why don’t you interview him right now. Do you like people?
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
Mr. Branson: I won’t ask what’s wrong with your dad’s company. But anyway you’ve obviously got a lot of confidence and we should definitely talk.
Audience Member: Customer service (inaudible).
Mr. Branson: Okay. I’ll be very, very happy to have you on board. It’s so great.
Audience Member: Good evening. Good evening, Sir Richard. My question was, what are the key factors that — does Virgin focus on when trying to enter an already active marketplace? And then my second question was what’s your golf handicap?
Mr. Branson: Well, maybe — I mean I just touched on fuel earlier, which I’ll just try to explain very quickly my thinking on it and it’s — it doesn’t sound very consumer, but Virgin’s fuel bill went up half a billion dollars in the last two year, a lot of money, and so we examined very quickly, you know why — why has fuel gone up by that much and we realized that oil refineries, there’s a shortage of capacity and the oil companies are not investing in oil refineries, and also OPEC have a stranglehold over the amount of fuel that’s sold. There isn’t really an organization that’s trying to counter that and the — our governments are not really doing much about it. And so, you know, so the end result is, you know, is that airline tickets are going up and running, driving our cars is going up and there’s a danger that we could get a recession, I think, one day as a result. So my initial reaction was, you know, let’s build an oil refinery. It’s an expensive thing to build, but you know, but let me — let’s get together a whole lot of other airlines and cruise companies and other people, you know, car companies, other people that are affected by this, and let’s see if we can get a few oil refineries built. And then, having looked at it further, we thought, well, you know, there is another problem in this world and that is global warming. Is there a way in which we can actually drive fuel prices down, but at the same time — at the same time help the environment. And, you know, I had a — some fascinating meetings with some environmentalists and I spent the last month really trying to understand, you know, what the alternatives are. And I mean ethanol has been around for — for many years, but, you know, the amount of ethanol produced is very small, but everybody here could use, you know, in their current car, 10 to 15 percent ethanol in their car and that has enormous environmental benefits, and it also means that it’s fuel that’s produced from sugarcane and wheat and it’s actually — you know, benefits the environment and it benefits farmers and the like, but then, you know, is there a bigger — is there an even bigger game than that? And the answer is, yes, there’s something called celluloids ethanol, which — which — which instead of just using the wheat itself and the sugar itself you actually can, in a celluloids ethanol plant, you can actually — all the waste product, the stalks, can all be thrown in and — and you can actually produce fuel from that and so — and there’s plenty of that around. And then you could actually replace oil altogether if enough celluloids ethanol plants were built, so we’ve now taken on a team of people and we’re taking on a team of people now to build celluloids ethanol plants and, if we can get enough plants built and just tip the balance, fuel prices can start coming down and — and in time, I mean maybe over the next 20, 25, 30 years you could actually get — there’s the capacity to have 90 percent of all fuel being completely pure, completely clean fuel and a fantastic future if it means you won’t get global warming.
Ms. Pauley: Can I get a little direction from, you know, how much time do we — I’d go on, you know, for a long time, but —
Audience Member: One more question.
Ms. Pauley: I’m just hoping somebody from the organization can tell me how we’re doing. Just carry on? Okay.
Audience Member: Good evening, Sir Richard.
Mr. Branson: Say again.
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
Mr. Branson: Oh, I’ve just read a wonderful book called A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I don’t know if anyone’s read that, by Bill Bryson. It should be in every school. It’s a really, really good book.
I’ve gotten to know Nelson Mandela very well over the years and his autobiography was magnificent and I think he’s a fantastic example to us all.
Audience Member: Good evening, Sir Richard.
Mr. Branson: What books inspired you, as a matter of interest?
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
Mr. Branson: What was it?
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
Mr. Branson: Will you send me a copy? Thank you.
Audience Member: Good evening, Sir Richard. My question is a bit more mundane than some of the others that have come before, but what is the single most important factor that you look at when financing small and mid-sized businesses in terms of actually allowing them to expand and grow?
Mr. Branson: Well, I mean we have certain criteria with the Virgin brand and, you know, it’s got to fit into those criteria if we’re going to put the Virgin brand on it. And generally it’s got to be consumer orientated, it’s got to be global, it’s got to have the potential of working throughout the world and it’s got to offer fantastic value for money to the consumer and we’ve got to have a lot of fun in doing it. You know, those I think are sort of four principal criteria that we apply and, you know, we also try to make sure that we get 25, 30 percent return so that, you know, that will cover for the mistakes we make on the business that don’t work out, and so if you’ve got a business that fits those criteria I’d love to hear from you.
Ms. Pauley: Do you know, I’m afraid I do have —
Audience Member: I’ll be contacting you.
Mr. Branson: Okay.
Ms. Pauley: — to kind of cut things off. Don’t blame me. Do not blame me.
Audience Member: (Inaudible).
I’ll probably never get an opportunity like this again. Sir Richard, I just thought of issuing the world’s first universal citizenship (inaudible) coming together, they care about the globe (inaudible).
Ms. Pauley: All right.
Mr. Branson: Thank you. It’s — yeah, it not — I think I could tell one or two people were thinking that doesn’t sound such a great — it’s not such a bad idea at all, I think, in that individual countries think about — about elections taking place in two or three years time. There isn’t anybody really thinking about global issues, so keep up the good work.
Ms. Pauley: Okay. I have to say that Sir Richard, as I alluded to, threw a party last night in Los Angeles and then got on a commercial airline, took the red eye, and came here to be with us. His appearance benefits Virgin Unite, the foundation that you spoke about. You’re a great man.
Mr. Branson: Thank you.
Ms. Sobbott: Thank you, again, Richard and Jane, and thank you all for coming. Enjoy the rest of your evening.
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