San Francisco—Known for pushing the norm on how business should be done, Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group of Companies, quickly admitted to DMA06 attendees during his keynote address Monday morning that there’s “no doubt we’ve done things a little differently.” Now with 200 companies in 30 countries across five continents spanning everything from a record label to an airline to mobile phones, Branson said Virgin is still doing unexpected things despite the business’s large size.
In 1970, two years after launching Virgin, Branson started selling records by mail order using a small leaflet; he opened a store in London the following year. Major recording artists such as the Sex Pistols, Boy George, and Phil Collins signed to Virgin Records over the next 10 years, and by 1983, Branson’s company had extended its reach to film distribution, games, and property development.
Branson’s big gamble was in 1984 when Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Cargo were founded. He told attendees of Virgin’s first flight, shortly before the company’s official launch, when he was stranded in the U.S. Virgin Islands after his flight to Puerto Rico was cancelled. Otherwise grounded, Branson charted a plane for $2,000, sold one-way tickets to other passengers for $39, filled the flight, made a profit, and took off with the idea of launching Virgin Airways.
When the airline made its first trans-Atlantic flight from Newark, NJ, to London in 1984, critics said the company was “too old to rock and roll and too young to fly,” but Branson smirked during his presentation that Virgin Atlantic ultimately proved profitable.
The bulk of Branson’s speech was devoted to his passion for environmentally safe business practices, such as energy-efficient planes like the one Virgin created and that now sits in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. He also spoke of using a business’s profits to make a difference in the world rather than sitting in a bank account. “There’s no point in going into business unless you aim to make a difference,” Branson said.
One way Virgin Atlantic is doing that is by collecting foreign change from passengers disembarking planes and donating it to children’s charities. The donations total hundreds of British pounds each year, and other airlines have adopted similar programs.
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