The greatest Briton: Richard Branson

If the BBC can do it, so can
Personnel Today. We want to know which Briton you rate as the greatest people
manager and leader of all time. Personnel Today has invited 10 leading figures
in the field of management to nominate individuals they believe are the best,
and then convince you they are right. To vote, visit the voting form where you will also find summaries of all 10
The voting closes on Tuesday 4th March 2003.

This week’s nominee is:

Richard Branson

By Mike Broad, assistant
editor, Personnel Today

Sir Richard Branson has fallen
into that dangerous media category also occupied by the likes of Robbie
Williams, Chris Tarrant and Tony Blair – the over-exposed.

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

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

Despite Richard Branson’s love
affair with the press being over, he has delivered all three of these latter
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
bit of 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 cool £1bn.

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 budget. 

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.

“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

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 support.

“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. Bill Gates is spending his time creating the world’s largest
charity, for example.

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?

Branson’s CV

1950 Born in Surrey
1968 After leaving school with few qualifications, Branson launches Student
1971 First Virgin record shop in London
1973 Virgin record label is launched and releases Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells

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

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