Sir Richard Branson has fallen into that dangerous media category also occupied
by the likes of Robbie Williams, Chris Tarrant and Tony Blair – the
One day they were all the darlings of the media, up on a pedestal; the next,
they were over-exposed and heading earthwards. It can be a simple trigger – one
song too many about yourself, another contrived pause for the audience, or that
last insincere promise.
The press may have tired of them, but that doesn’t mean they have become
unpopular with the important people – the public. Their songs still get to
number one, they still attract huge TV ratings and still live in Downing
Street. And they still inspire, entertain or lead large numbers of people.
Despite Richard Branson’s love affair with the press being over, he has
delivered all three of these things for more than 30 years, and the people love
him. Whenever there is a poll for a hypothetical leader, Branson always wins –
if the public had had their way, he would be the Mayor of London and the
Democratic Republic of Britain’s head of state.
Branson may have pulled one publicity stunt too many (surely it was a crime
against humanity for him to don a wedding dress for the launch of Virgin
Bride), but I challenge you to name a better British business leader. In fact,
just try naming 10 British business leaders, good or bad. In a square mile of
grey suits, Branson is a noisy maverick, a bit of fun.
But does being exuberant and fun make him the Greatest Briton in Management
and Leadership? To win this title – and I am confident he will win – I have to
prove three things. First, that he is a great businessman; second, a great
leader and, finally, a great Briton.
His business record is no joke. While he claims to have only recently worked
out the difference between net and gross, the 53-year-old has created a
business empire of more than 270 branded companies. He is personally worth a
While many have accused him of being a lucky chancer, this could not be
further from the truth. Branson does take chances, but he manages the risk
carefully. Look at his launches into the cola and mobile phones markets. In his
war with the Coke giants, Branson ensured that the costs of producing Virgin
Cola were negligible, so his risk only relates to the size of the marketing
In the mobile phones market, the expensive part is setting up and
maintaining the communication network. But Branson hooked up with T-Mobile and
uses its network, cutting overheads and allowing it to deliver better value to
the customer. This sort of opportunism, and his habitual re-investment in his
businesses, has led to the Virgin Group having an annual turnover of £3.5bn.
But is he a great leader? People work for Virgin because they want to work
for Branson. He has imbued all of his companies with his enthusiasm, and
consequently, Virgin constantly vies with the BBC and the Foreign Office for
the top spot in graduates’ employer wish lists.
Mike Broad is assistant editor of Personnel Today
"Convention dictates that a company should look after its shareholders
first, its customers next and last of all worry about its employees," says
Branson. "Virgin does the opposite. For us employees matter most. It just
seems common sense to me that if you start with a happy, well-motivated
workforce, you’re much more likely to have happy customers. In due course the
resulting profits will make your shareholders happy."
A great Briton? Undoubtedly. We love an underdog, and Branson always
positions himself as the little man. He took on British Airways over their
‘dirty tricks’ campaign and had his day in court. OK, he was less successful at
taking on the ‘fat cats’ of Camelot – but he still received great public
"My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently
unachievable challenges, and trying to rise above them," he says.
We also love a self-made man. Branson doesn’t have an Oxbridge degree, or a
rich daddy. He is one of us (despite owning a Caribbean island).
There have also been the big gestures. He flew to Baghdad to rescue the
‘human shield’ prior to the Gulf War, and bid to run the National Lottery
franchise on a not-for-profit basis.
But he is no saint. He had an early run-in with the authorities over music
bootlegging, and more recently journalists made a lot of the offshore financing
of his businesses to reduce his tax liabilities. While legal, it is hardly the
work of a great philanthropist. In contrast, Bill Gates is spending his time
creating the world’s largest charity.
But surely this just adds to Branson’s charisma; he’s a scruffy,
balloon-flying maverick, who gets his kicks from challenging the established
order and creating businesses that he can be proud of. He doesn’t have a higher
calling, but who cares? The 35,000 employees who have helped him create one of
the world’s leading brands certainly don’t.
"Some people say that my vision for Virgin breaks all the rules and is
too wildly kaleidoscopic; others analyse it down to the last degree and then
write academic papers on it. As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on
with it," he says.
Gates may be a great philanthropist, and one of the few businessmen with a
personal and corporate brand as strong as Branson’s, but who would you rather
have lunch with? And, more importantly, who would you rather work for?
1950 Branson is born in Surrey
1968 After leaving school with few qualifications, Branson launches Student
1971 Opens first Virgin record shop in London
1973 Virgin record label is launched and releases Mike Oldfield’s Tubular
1984 Takes to the air with Virgin Atlantic
1993 Wins libel action against British Airways
2000 Fails in bid to run National Lottery
2001 Significant expansion of Virgin companies, including Atlantic, Mobile,
Money and Active
Make your vote count
Here’s a reminder of the nominees
Geoffrey De Havilland
Nominated by Linda Holbeche,
director of research at Roffey Park
Geoffrey de Havilland was a pioneering pilot and led the
aviation industry. He designed, tested and built planes that were vital to our
country’s success in the Second World War, such as the Mosquito fighter-bomber.
He was a bold risk-taker, but treated his staff fairly. He ensured good working
conditions in his factories, trail-blazed sponsored apprenticeships, and went
on to launch the first commercial jet liner.
Nominated by Brendan Barber,
general secretary elect of the TUC
Despite being the illegitimate seventh child of an impoverished
domestic worker, Ernest Bevin rose to sit alongside Winston Churchill in the
War Cabinet. A manual worker until the age of 30, he rose rapidly through the
union ranks, working ceaselessly to deliver better living standards for
workers. In later life, he became foreign secretary and helped create the
settlement that led to Britain’s withdrawal from the Empire.
Alexander Graham Bell
Nominated by Paul Pagliari, HR
director of Scottish Water
Alexander Graham Bell had a visionary understanding of the
power and potential of communication. On 7 March 1876, Bell patented the
telephone at the tender age of 29 – six years after immigrating to America. He
shrank the world and started the information revolution that continues in our
workplaces today. He helped establish the Bell Telephone Company, and lobbied
vociferously for the education of deaf people.
Nominated by Tim Yeo, Shadow Secretary
of State for Trade and Industry
Mike Brearley was one of the finest England cricket captains
ever. He led the team in 31 test matches, winning 18 and losing only four. He
was an inspired leader and motivator, and will be remembered for bringing home
the Ashes in 1981 – overcoming seemingly impossible odds. Following his
cricketing retirement, Brearley wrote a definitive work on leadership entitled
The Art of Captaincy.
Nominated by Will Hutton, chief
executive of The Work Foundation
The greatest test of leadership is an organisation’s ability to
prosper over time. John Reith achieved this as the first director general of
the BBC. Unlike so many organisations in the UK, the BBC works. Its strong
reputation for creativity and professionalism has created extraordinary
loyalty. The BBC informs, educates and entertains as part of its duty to the
public – and it was Reith who unwaveringly insisted on this ethic.
Nominated by Max McKeown, leading
Anita Roddick created a $1bn, top 50 brand in The Body Shop,
and yet profit was never her motive. She wanted to create an organisation that
delivered more than shareholder value – one that brought ethics into business,
inspired women, and gave its staff the best working conditions and benefits.
Roddick stood down from the board last year, promising to campaign for human
rights in the future.
Nominated by Stephen Bubb, chief
executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations
In the 1970s, the press claimed that Jack Jones – then general
secretary of the T&G union – ran the country. He brokered the pioneering
‘social contract’ between the Government, industry and the unions, which saw
the unions restrain pay claims for the good of the economy. He also forged the
idea of ‘industrial democracy’, which led to employees being treated as
Nominated by Geoff Armstrong,
director general of the CIPD
Sir Adrian Cadbury led his family firm towards being a global
player – as Cadbury Schweppes – and pioneered business thinking on management
ethics, governance and social responsibility. He articulated the values
underpinning progressive people management, and showed practices could be
designed to draw the best from employees. He led the seminal review of
corporate governance in the 1990s that bears his name.
Nominated by Ruth Spellman, chief
executive, Investors in People
Leadership in the 20th century was typically hierarchical, but
Ernest Shackleton led by example. Despite all three of his polar missions
ending in failure, he brought every member of his party back safely, against
the odds. He offers a tangible role model not based on modern management
theory, but on real-life experience. Through his experiences, we realise the
importance of building teams and recognising the strength of individuals.
Nominated by Mike Broad, assistant
editor, Personnel Today
Sir Richard Branson has entertained and inspired his staff and
the public for more than 30 years. He has risen from running a struggling
student magazine in a basement flat to driving a global brand that turns over
£3.5bn. His companies – which employ 35,000 people – are all imbued with his
values of opportunism and fun, and Virgin Group has become the pre-eminent
employer of choice.