Secrets of Virgin's success laid bare

2008-12-29 00:00

Dare I admit that I am somewhat cynical about business theory. The plethora of books available in the business section of a bookshop gives one the impression that success can be achieved by reading them and implementing the theories.

If it were that easy, of course, reading rather than entrepreneurship would be the way to business growth and profitability.

The reality is that different theories work for different people and the essential elements leading to success are not to be found in books. That they stimulate thought and introspection, and provide helpful direction, however, is beyond dispute and a business leader should read avidly to exploit these benefits.

Top of the pile, I suggest, might be Sir Richard Branson’s Business Stripped Bare. The subtitle, Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, gives a more accurate insight into the nature of this book than the title itself, although the author is not reluctant to display the warts that have emerged from time to time in the Virgin firmament. Indeed, it is a Branson thesis that mistakes are almost mandatory in the education and development of the entrepreneur. He, as the subtitle suggests, remains entrepreneurial in his outlook despite the size of the Virgin empire throughout the world.

He distinguishes between the entrepreneur and the manager, suggesting that each have a role to play in the life of a company.

By his own admission, he is not strong on management and has consistently employed the most competent people to manage the various Virgin entities, leaving him to explore new opportunities and undertake adventures and risks which are the very fundamental characteristics of entrepreneurship.

Let’s not imagine for a moment, however, that he is “hands off”. The Virgin brand, in whatever sphere it appears, reflects the personality and the core values of its founder. There is a commitment to high-quality service, customer enjoyment, a touch of irreverence, adventure and an experience that is essentially different from the run of the mill.

These are the values built into the business model which, for example, enabled Virgin Blue to take the Australian domestic air travel market by storm. The traditional way of offering air travel was challenged very successfully, as reflected by the remarkable fact that while 16 000 Ansett staffers serviced 10 million passengers, Virgin Blue satisfied half as many again with only 4 000 staff.

The book abounds in Virgin success stories, all told without a trumpet solo from the author. “We’ve learnt to ride our luck,” he claims when admitting that business success is dependent on luck to a significant extent.

“Innovation is what you get when you capitalise on luck, when you get up from your desk and go and see where ideas and people lead you.”

This is a very readable book; one that will be read without a frown or a look which says that this is serious stuff. It is a series of stories about the parts of Virgin; about its people, its global brand, how it delivers, its mistakes, its innovations, its awakening social responsibility and its future in the age of space tourism. It matches the author’s view that business is simple, though not easy.

“Those business leaders who seek to turn their industries into complex puzzles ..... really annoy me,” Sir Richard writes. “It isn’t enough that they’re good business people: they have to be Confucius.” Also, “Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to make something simple.”

As I write, a group of The Elders is in South Africa trying to assist Zimbabwe with their collective wisdom. I wonder how many people know, or remember, that it was Branson who prompted the establishment of this group of eminent people under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, who, incidentally, inspired Branson and stimulated his great interest in South Africa. And that this gifted entrepreneur, who is deeply engaged in the search for alternative fuels to ease the effects of global warming, also printed the names of competitors on the toilet paper when Virgin staged music festivals.

The man is a business blockbuster in cinemascope and technicolour. The story of his brand is excellent reading.

• Business Stripped Bare by Richard Branson is published by St Martin’s Press.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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