For more than four decades, Richard Branson has personified showy entrepreneurship on a grand scale.
After starting a mail-order record business in 1970, he used his marketing savvy and personal brand to turn his Virgin empire into a disparate conglomerate that included everything from mobile phone carriers to hotels and airlines. Along the way, he raced hot-air balloons, started a space tourism company, turned a Caribbean island into a private oasis and was knighted at Buckingham Palace.
Today, at 67, Mr. Branson has not eased off the extreme sports. Between kitesurfing with former President Barack Obama and a monthlong endurance challenge, he is lobbying other business leaders to be more responsible, and working with his daughter Holly as she becomes more involved in the business.
Ms. Branson studied as a doctor before joining Virgin 10 years ago. As a member of the leadership team, she has worked on businesses including Virgin Hotels, and is chair of the company’s foundation, Virgin Unite. She is now working to improve the culture and employee benefits across the company, leading to speculation that she will one day replace her father as the face of the brand.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at the Virgin offices in New York City as the Bransons traveled to promote a new book Ms. Branson co-wrote, “WEconomy.”
David Gelles: What was it like growing up with Richard Branson as a dad?
Holly Branson: I would be playing video games at one end of the sitting room while the Rolling Stones were chatting at the other end, and not have any clue about what was going on.
Richard Branson: We worked on a houseboat, and we had one room for the living room, and that’s also where I did all my meetings. So my poor wife had to retreat to the bedroom when we had a meeting. The kids didn’t. They stayed crawling around the room.
Holly: She didn’t have to retreat. She probably chose to retreat.
Richard: But I chose my lady well. She’s Glaswegian and an incredible mom, and very down to earth. Her one and only priority is the kids and grandkids. I suspect I see more of Holly than most dads, which is unusual when you think we’ve got 80,000 people working for Virgin around the world. We have managed to get that balance between working hard and spending an awful lot of time together. And we still do.
David: It’s nice to hear a man bring up the importance of work-life balance for once.
Richard: In America, the way people are treated at companies is despicable. It’s two- or three-week holidays, no flexible working, nobody being able to work from home. The length of holidays are dreadful. At Virgin, Holly has been leading the way in really trying to get that right.
Holly: Well, Dad was doing this instinctively when he was building the business. He was allowing people to work from where they wanted to. As long as you get your work done, it doesn’t matter where you are. And he’s proof that you can build a business from basically being at home all the time.
For the last 10 years, we’ve been really making sure it’s embedded in the business. We tried to bring unlimited leave in the U.K., but it took us 18 months to do it legally, just trying to give people more holiday. Now we do it, and people don’t run out the door. They just feel valued and trusted.
Richard: Yeah. If they have a wedding, or they have a birthday, they don’t have to ask. They just do it. It’s how you would treat your children, and how you should treat people who you’re working with.
David: Does that trickle all the way down to some of the most junior employees at Virgin?
Richard: I mean, some jobs, it’s obviously not possible. Pilots or cabin crew, we need to know that they’re going to turn up. But there are other jobs where it really is easy to do. The idea that you could just go off for two months to Bali, and be paid, and have a really special holiday without feeling bad about it — you’re going to love that company that does that.
David: What are some other areas where you’re focused on improving benefits for employees?
Holly: We’re trying to design the maternity and paternity policies the right way so that men feel they can take time off, too. The big thing for us now is making it culturally acceptable for a man to take the time off. And then it means that the women aren’t always feeling that it’s their careers that are getting sidelined.
David: Holly, you trained to be a doctor. Why did you join the business?
Holly: I qualified as a doctor. I worked in the U.K. for a bit. And then in the U.K., you get randomly allocated your jobs when you’re a junior doctor. The first year, I got a great job that I was really passionate about. And then the second year, I got allocated predominately surgery. And I knew I didn’t want to be a surgeon. I’m just not that into cutting people open.
So I went to Mom and Dad. He said, “Why don’t you take a year off and go work at Virgin?” I never ever thought I’d be working in the family business, but it was a great opportunity. So I thought, “OK, I’ll do that for the year, and then I’ll go back to medicine.” Now I’ve been at Virgin for 10 years.
Richard: You don’t automatically assume that your child is going to come into the company. If one of them ended up wanting to come and work with this, obviously that’s lovely. But the key thing was that they found what they wanted to do in life. It’s great that Holly, from the company’s point of view, and from the 80,000 people who work for it, is becoming a figurehead. I’m not going to be able to be the figurehead forever.
David: Is that a formal announcement of succession planning?
Richard: No. I don’t think I’ll ever retire.
David: Richard, you’ve had hits and misses. What differentiates Virgin Music and Virgin Atlantic from Virgin Cola and Virgin Clothing?
Richard: The businesses that we’ve been successful at are the ones where we have made a radical difference in people’s lives. The businesses that have not been as successful have been the ones where it was fun doing it, but we weren’t really changing anything.
When Coke came down like a ton of bricks on Virgin Cola, we had a fun brand, but they could squash us. When British Airways came down with a ton of bricks on Virgin Atlantic, we were so much better than they were. The public stuck with us and were loyal to us, despite the fact that we only had one plane against their 300 planes. Thirty-five years later, Virgin Atlantic is still going strong.
David: What do you think those in positions of power should do to address social problems like income inequality?
Richard: A basic income should be introduced in Europe and in America. It’s great to see countries like Finland experimenting with it in certain cities. It’s a disgrace to see people sleeping on the streets with this material wealth all around them. And I think with artificial intelligence coming along, there needs to be a basic income.
David: Because of job displacement?
Richard: I think A.I. will result in there being less hours in the day that people are going to need to work. You know, three-day workweeks and four-day weekends. Then we’re going to need companies trying to entertain people during those four days, and help people make sure that they’re paid a decent amount of money for much shorter work time.
David: That’s a pretty rosy vision of what business can do. Is it really so simple?
Holly: If all businesses start doing the right thing for their communities and the world as a whole, all of the world’s problems could be solved.
Richard: If we can get every business in the world to adopt a global problem, get slightly smaller businesses to adopt a national problem, get smaller businesses still to adopt local problems, then we can get on top of pretty well every problem in the world.
David: What does great leadership look like to each of you?
Richard: Somebody who looks for the best in people. In the same way that you water a plant, you praise, don’t criticize.
Holly: A good listener. Make sure you’re listening to everybody within the company, and to your customers.
NEW YORK TIMES