Sir Richard Branson — entrepreneur, adventurer, disruptor, philanthropist, and now a guiding spirit for the retail industry.
In his keynote address to the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show” at the Jacob K. Javits Center Monday, Branson had no shortage of advice, rimmed with uplifting words for an industry confronting numerous challenges and the imperative to dramatically change.
“I have sympathy for retailers. It’s a tough business,” said the founder of the Virgin Group, commiserating with the crowd as he was interviewed by The Container Store co-founder and chairman Kip Tindell, who just stepped down as NRF chairman and was succeeded by HSNi’s Mindy Grossman.
Branson’s list of retail to-dos included “refusing to accept the unacceptable” and allowing employees to try new things and to sometimes fail. “People don’t mind entrepreneurs trying and failing, as long as they don’t leave people in debt and keep their reputation intact.”
He said retailers should stay flexible, move fast and build businesses that transcend the quest for profits by supporting social and environmental causes. In 2004, he established nonprofit foundation Virgin Unite to tackle tough social and environmental problems with such units as The Elders, Carbon War Room, B Team and Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.
Companies should be “more than just money-making machines…look after friends, look after your neighbors, care for loved ones.” His point was that if every company took on a cause or an issue, most of the world’s problems could be solved. “People work harder, if they can be proud of their company.”
Displaying both a self-deprecating and jovial manner, Branson said, “Having a bit of fun is good. Not taking yourself too seriously is important,” and that it’s OK to be “cheeky” from time to time. Branson admitted to being a bit of a prankster, and recalled when promoting his airline company, he flew a blimp over the Ferris wheel which was lying flat on its side, with a sign saying “British Airways can’t get it up.”
During his presentation, Branson stood up for women, suggesting putting more women in positions of power. “Government needs to say 40 to 50 percent of women have to be on boards. Women understand customers better than men, particularly in retail….It’s bizarre you don’t have more women running retail.”
But his main advice to retailers was: “You don’t have to stay a retailer just because you are retailer. Spin off businesses from the back of retail so retail stores can survive.”
It’s a lesson he learned when his now-defunct Virgin Megastores music stores started faltering with advent of iPods in 2001 and digital, and his company shifted into selling mobile phones and video games. The company started in the Seventies as a mail-order record business that evolved into Virgin Record Stores. Now the $24 billion Virgin Group encompasses 400 different businesses, including airline and balloon travel, financial services, leisure and entertainment, fitness clubs, as well as mobile phones and games, and a soon to launch Virgin Galactic commercial space line, still in the test phase.
The wildly successful, self-described “serial entrepreneur” has on more than one occasion failed in some venture, including the bridal business. And he didn’t shy from mentioning that on a handful of his many balloon flights he had to be plucked out of the water by helicopter rescue.
In 2014, during a test flight over the Mojave desert, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft crashed after an explosion killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot. Test flights were resumed last year.
“We’ve got 60 engineers to make it a reality,” Branson said, adding that the Galactic will fly faster than the Concorde ever did.”I’ve dreamt of going into space. The challenge is to make it affordable. Ideally, you want a return ticket.”
He said he believes it’s possible that man lands on Mars, and that the underlying goal of his space program is to improve planet Earth by learning more about its environmental issues from the vantage of outer space.
“I’m a person who looks forward more than looks back,” Branson said.