The founder and president of the Virgin Group — with ownership of some 200 companies in over 30 countries and interests in travel, tourism, and resorts on a few continents — tells BlackBook about his humble beginnings, having luck on his side, hoping that airline hero Sully may join the team, and his obsession with sticky puddings.
How did you get your start in business? I left school and started Student Magazine from out of a call box. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I found out that a lot of school was a waste of time for me. The magazine was my education. Then I started on the record side, and it turned out to be more fun. And that took over.
Right now, you’re in the air. What kind of phone are you using to make this call? We’re basically using wifi, and by next month, we’ll be the only airline in the world with full Internet. You can use your Blackberry up here. Business people can spend their hours working, and kids will have access to the net.
How did you morph from Student Magazine to Virgin Records? In 1970, I founded Virgin as a mail-order record retailer, and shortly afterwards I opened a record shop on Oxford Street in London. In 1972, we built a recording studio in Oxfordshire where the first Virgin artist, Mike Oldfield, recorded “Tubular Bells.” In 1977, we signed the Sex Pistols, and we went on to sign many household names from Culture Club to the Rolling Stones, helping to make Virgin Music one of the top six record companies in the world. I was very, very lucky.
Has luck always figured large in your life? Was your childhood lucky? Fantastically lucky, apart from the fact that my mother never made puddings — I had to run away to a friend’s house after dinner to get them. My wife says my passions are beautiful women and sticky puddings. Everything else about my childhood was extremely lucky.
You’re known for being very generous to your employees — how does that relate to big business? It’s a balancing act. Obviously, if you’ve got a highly motivated group of people working together, you can achieve pretty much anything. The key is finding the right people and motivating them so that they’re proud of creating a quality product that is better than its rivals. If people believe that what you have — the airline, for instance — is the best, they’re proud of it, and they deliver. And you look after your staff. You may not be able to pay them as much as the big airlines, but you can make sure that all the little things are right.
What about the Sully rumor? We heard you offered Captain Sullenberger a job. It was flippant, but we Virgins would love to see him on board. I said publicly if he wants to change his job, we’d love to have him. He’s the most remarkable pilot flying or not flying and the most amazing river plane pilot, ever.
Whatever happened to Virgin Vodka? We still sell a little, but it’s triple distilled in small batches, so there‘s never enough to go around. It was sadly one of our less successful ventures. I suspect because it’s difficult to differentiate vodkas, even though because of the triple distilling, you never, ever get a hangover.
What’s the regulation problem with and Alaska Airlines? You mooned them during a Boston press conference. I think they protest too much. They’re trying to go to the regulators to get us grounded. I have an English accent and, therefore, am not allowed to have an airline in America. But America hasn’t had a decent domestic airline for years, so here we are. Virgin America is innovative and 100% better than the nearest rival. By the end of March, all of our planes will have full Internet service in addition to the rest of our facilities. Obviously our entertainment is the best on board. I’m afraid that Alaska Airlines is going to have to improve the quality of their product and get new planes and better entertainment systems to compete with us. We’ve been voted Best Airline in America and Best Business Airline this year. We’re expanding, not contracting. We’re here to stay.
Tell me about Necker Island and the new venture on the “island next door.” The “island next door” is the most beautiful little island in the world. It’s now my home, and we’ll share it with people who want to rent it. The new island is 100% carbon neutral, and we’re putting windmills and solar equipment on it. It has a beautiful reef around it, delightful staff, and we’re surrounded by beautiful, clean seas. It’s pristine. Unlike Necker, on the new island we’re doing just a couple of houses in the rain forest, and they will be slightly more private.
What about South Africa? We have a beautiful game park called Ulusaba, quite similar to Necker in that it’s high above the jungle — rather than the sea — with the best game viewing anywhere in Africa, with sightings of cheetah and leopards a regular occurrence. We have two houses there — a safari lodge and the rock lodge.
Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? As Virgin moves deeper into the hospitality sector, I’ve been hearing lots about Danny Meyer. He seems to be a service-oriented restaurateur, someone who shares Virgin’s focus on customers and pays attention to every single detail.
What negative things have you noticed in the hospitality industry? It’s clear that customers are very smart. They know how to shop around, and they won’t settle for anything less than value for money. That’s why Virgin America has been so successful. It’s got competitive fares without sacrificing customer service. We’re giving control back to the traveler with Internet access, seat-to-seat chatting, and power outlets at every seat. We hope to do in the hotel space what Virgin America has done for commercial flying: bring back the value without sacrificing the glamour and the essentials.
Tell me about The Elders, the group formed by Nelson Mandela, Peter Gabriel, Graca Machel, Desmond Tutu, and yourself. They are a group of leaders who contribute their wisdom, independent leadership, and integrity to tackling some of the world’s toughest problems. Considering how old they are, they’re working hard and have had considerable success already, although the group is still relatively young — only formed in 2007. They’ve done a lot of work on Zimbabwe both publicly and behind the scenes, and hopefully a new unity government is now making some progress towards resolving the terrible humanitarian crisis in that country. They are also working in Cyprus to help peace efforts by the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. And two Elders — Kofi Annan and Graça Machel — played a key role in helping to bring peace to Kenya last year. We are watching events in the Middle East closely — it’s tremendously exciting, so there will likely be efforts there.