Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sir Richard Branson Makes Me Sweat...

I'm about 80 per cent through Sir Richard Branson's risquely-titled new book, Screw Business As Usual, and I'm sweating profusely with inspiration from chapter to chapter, page to page. In this book, he champions his mantra: "Do good, have fun and the money will come". He illustrates with examples how "businesses, from commercial enterprises to those run by social entrepreneurs, can grow and thrive by doing the right thing". Here are three examples that I like.

Having been in the education industry for the most part of my working life, I'm inspired by his story about a dyslexic,  Peter Avis, and how he makes it good at one of Branson's businesses. At the age of 17, when he was looking at the various career options open to him, his headmaster told him: "Some people are made to sweep the streets and, unfortunately, you are one of those people". Peter, the no-hoper, who started off as a dishwasher, battled the odds and went on to manage Babylon, a restaurant owned by Virgin Limited Edition.

Yet, before Peter Avis worked at Babylon, whenever success stared him in the face, he would resign for fear that his dyslexia would be discovered. His transformation is only possible because, as Branson explains, "Virgin people are happy people...and because of that they love their jobs and stay in them. It's not just that the staff like working at Virgin- we value and respect them". In 2008 Peter Avis was voted Restaurant Manager of the Year and in 2009 Babylon was named Toptable Best Restaurant.

Branson's story about how at the age of 15 he decided that he wanted to get into the world to "continue my education in life" also makes inspiring reading. Like Peter Avis, he is also deslexic. Quite interestingly he nurtured a secret ambition to be a journalist, and at age 16 started Student, a magazine that would engage people to talk about "issues facing young people in the sixties, like the Vietnam War, racism, sexual health, and son on". An old letter he wrote to his school principal to explain  his reason for wanting to quit his school at Stowe shows the self-assurance and confidence that continue to serve him well in life and in business: "By leaving this summer I feel I can give more to Stowe and Britain..." Wow!

I also enjoy reading his anecdote of a KwaZulu woman who stopped him while he was visiting Ulusaba, Virgin's private game reserve in South Africa. "Mr Richard," she said, "I've heard you are a very generous man. Can you lend me money to buy a sewing machine?" Branson gave her the $300 she requested and she said she would "repay it within three months and employ six people full-time". When she left, Branson thought to himself that he would probably never see his money again. Three months later, when he visited a village to open some community projects supported by Virgin Unite, he was surprised when six women came up to him and gave him "a gift of the most exquisite cotton pillows and tribal clothes which they had made. And to complete my surprise, they returned the $300". But the entrepreneurial seamstress was nowhere to be seen as she was "off to the market selling the products".