Richard Branson remains the face, spirit of Virgin

NEW YORK – Richard Branson arrives at the Manhattan showroom of Shinola, an American-made watch company. There are no flashing cameras nor any deals in the making. He just sits on a couch in founder Tom Kartsotis' office, teacup in hand. He smiles and gently slips “beautiful” and “brilliant” into the pauses as Kartsotis steers the conversation. On this bright September morning, Kartsotis and Branson sit in contrast to each other. Both dropped out of school decades ago to start businesses. Yet despite his commanding presence, Kartsotis has avoided media coverage in the dec­ades since starting his first company, the watchmaker Fossil, holding the idea that quality products best sell themselves. Branson, the quieter of the two, is the face and spirit of Virgin. His public bravado has been at the core of Virgin's marketing strategy, even though Branson insists it hasn't come naturally for him. “I know this sounds very, very strange,” he says, “but I was a shy lad once, and I had to overcome that.” Today, Branson is one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the world, holds a portfolio of hundreds of companies – airlines, banking, telecom, space travel – and projects a larger-than-life public persona. Yet it's hard to track down a business professor who has closely studied his personal or professional idiosyncrasies. That may be because, contrary to a common assumption, he is not the CEO or chairman of Virgin Group. His title is simply founder, though he does own a large chunk of its holdings (Forbes estimates his wealth at $5 billion) and is considered its vision keeper and chief brand promoter, even if it means dressing in drag. Yet, despite some business flops (Virgin Brides, for example) and publicity stunts gone too far (a hot air balloon crash at sea), Branson's class-clown strategy has largely paid off. And the United States is home to several of his big endeavors. Delta bought a 49 percent stake in his airline Virgin Atlantic and recently increased trans-Atlantic flights; his U.S. spinoff, Virgin America, is set to go public this fall; and the first Virgin Hotel will open in Chicago in December. The marketing tactics for all of these ventures rely heavily on Branson, who has long anchored Virgin's brand campaigns. In person, however, he is more bashful and bumbling than suave and self-assured. “I learned the art of using myself to promote my companies,” Branson says in the New York office of Virgin. It is a small space on Bleecker Street. You could walk right in and ride the tiny, rattling elevator up to the sixth floor to a bright loft space with open desks and just a few glass-walled meeting rooms. Branson keeps each Virgin office small – opting to splinter into multiple locations when the staff size gets too big – so that it doesn't feel like a bureaucracy. For that reason, Branson also doesn't keep a desk anywhere, preferring to meet employees on their own turf. At a panel discussion that morning for the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Branson is the only one whose remarks received applause, despite a small show of nerves. As he spoke, one hand pressed tightly between his knees, he rocked slightly in his chair. “Strangely, I think it made me more real not to be slick, which may have helped us in business rather than hindered,” he says later. There is another trait Branson has turned to his advantage: He is dyslexic. He recalls cheating off grade-school classmates in order to pass his tests, and he says that condition shaped his career in two profound ways. The first is that it prompted him to drop out of school at 15 to start a magazine, his first entrepreneurial venture. “If I hadn't been dyslexic,” he says, “almost definitely I would have carried on in a conventional education and most likely wouldn't be sitting here today.” Also, dyslexia strengthened his recruiting and delegation skills, as it gave him a certain humility to have to count on others. “I think that applies to a lot of dyslexics,” Branson says. “You excel at things you can do, and you maybe find other people to do the things you can't do.” One of those things is managing the operations for his many companies. Branson does not run any of them. He brings in a cadre of executives with the expertise he doesn't have and likes to tell the story of how he didn't know the difference between net and gross until he was 50. He's now 64. His senior team at Virgin Group is full of former consultants, lawyers and investment bankers from top firms such as Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Bain, and Slaughter and May. “They're all quite private, from-the-shadows kind of operators, but he's got some serious grown-ups who run his businesses,” says Richard Hytner, a former Saatchi & Saatchi CEO who is now a marketing professor at London Business School. “The leadership genius is that he has genuinely subor­di­nat­ed his ego to let very, very good people run his bus­i­nesses for him.”
SourceLillian Cunningham, , 7th October, 2014
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