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Richard answers your questions – Part 2

In a recent issue, we asked you to send in your questions for Sir Richard Branson

Here is our final selection,
along with his answers.

View last month’s questions and answers.

Question

What's the biggest financial risk you have ever taken?

Answer

I always believe in watching out for the downside and try not to risk too much in any one business decision.

Many people would think starting Virgin Atlantic in 1984, when we had no experience of the airline industry, was an enormous risk. However, I had tried to cover the downside by leasing the initial plane for a year and keeping the business separate from all of our other businesses.

Even then, we were almost sunk after our first trip when a bird flew into the engine and we had to use our reserves to buy a new one.

Our then bank manager turned up on my doorstep explaining the bank would not extend our overdraft and would bounce our cheques. That would have been fatal for the new airline – so I spent the weekend raising the money to pay back our overdraft and open a new bank account with a different bank.

Question

Apart from Necker, what's the most romantic place you've ever been to?

Answer

I’m lucky to have travelled to some amazing places and stayed in the most stunning hotels but I think that London can be quite a romantic place, especially in the summer months.

Back in 1970 I bought a lovely houseboat which is moored on the Grand Union Canal in Little Venice, a very pretty part of London. During the start of my relationship with my wife Joan we spent a lot of time on the boat and I have very fond memories of that time in my life.

It is moored there still and I have passed it to my son Sam.

Grand Union Canal
Question
What advice do you have for someone wanting to set up a business in the current environment?
Answer

You must do your research on the market you want to enter and think carefully about the service or product and how it will improve people’s lives. It is very important to really work on how your product or service will be different and stand out. At Virgin we have always made sure our customers get great value for money and a transparent product that’s marketed in a language that all can understand. 

In addition, you should try to look for opportunities that you will enjoy and feel passionate about. Starting a business will be a tough experience, involving long hours and many hard decisions – it helps to have that passion to keep you going. I never started a business just to make money – that came about after we had started.

Sharing that passion with the people you work with will also help you get off the ground faster and overcome the early start-up problems. Indeed, when faced with tough decisions, don’t be scared to ask for help or ideas from friends and family.

You’ll be surprised how much good advice you’ll receive from a brain-storming session.

Question
What is your most memorable achievement?
Answer

There have been quite a few over the last 40 years. Building Virgin Atlantic is one; creating The Elders, a group of inspirational people including Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter who work together to improve people’s lives across the world, is another.

Richard running the marathon

More recently, the acquisition of Northern Rock by Virgin Money after four years of trying has to rank up there as a memorable moment too.

On a personal note, completing the first Virgin London Marathon in 2010 is another achievement of which I am extremely proud.

Question
What are the strengths that you think have helped you to become so successful?
Answer

I believe my main strengths have always been identifying good ideas, attracting great people to work with us and ensuring that we give those people the authority to get on and build the businesses.
 
I have always seen the benefits of delegation and decentralisation – doing both has allowed me to start up many businesses in different parts of the world and not get myself too bogged down in the detail.

This, as well as an ability to take calculated risks, means Virgin has not been afraid of jumping into the unknown and starting new ventures or taking on new issues. We started Virgin Atlantic in 1984 with a few good people and a clear idea of how to do things differently – and we have followed that path with the launches of our mobile, money and health club businesses over the years.

Question
As a parent, how have you struck the balance between supporting your children and ensuring they aren't spoilt and can make their own way in life?
Answer

My wife is a strong-minded Glaswegian lady so there was very little chance that our children would grow up to be spoilt!

Holly and Sam have always been extremely independent and hard working – they have both developed careers and interests of their own choice. They also both have a wonderful circle of friends.

The Branson family
Question
Who do you respect the most, personally and professionally?
Answer

Professionally, I have a huge amount of respect for the late Steve Jobs – greatly admire his work and innovation.

Steve was able to create perhaps one of the most respected brands in the world. He had a great eye for detail and surrounded himself with like-minded people.

The person I respect the most from a personal point of view would be my dear friend Nelson Mandela – I am honoured to call such a wonderful man a friend.

Not only does he have the most amazing life story, he is a remarkable human being and a true inspiration!

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