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The Unique Qualities of a Self-Made Billionaire

It’s not every day you get the chance to hear someone like Sir Richard Branson speak in the flesh.  I recently had the rare opportunity when I found myself by chance at the National Achievers Congress in London, where the likes of Anthony Robbins, Lord Allen Sugar and others taught their personal secrets to becoming ridiculously rich.  You can imagine how it might have felt to be in a room with 8000 other motivated individuals, on the edge of their seats, listening to every word these men had to say.  I was on the edge of mine when it finally came time to hear Sir Richard interviewed by Michael Burke, as part of the closing keynote to the conference.

As I listened to Sir Richard speak about the qualities which led him to his virtually multi-billion dollar empire, I was struck by the difference in his tone compared to the other presenters – most of whom seemed driven and motivated to make as much money as humanely possible by the sheer need to overcome financial hardships.   When asked what the single characteristic that has made him what he is, he replied: “I love people, and I was brought up by my parents to look to the best in people,” which he went on to say was one of the most important attributes of a successful leader. “Looking for the best in people, praising people….people flourish. “If you can build a great team of people around you, if they believe in the difference you’re trying to make, you can build a great company.”

And he has – starting with Virgin Records, and now with over 400 companies and $4.2 billion dollars in net worth, Sir Richard Branson has done what few people dare to even dream. In a recent article in Entrepeneur Magazine, he talks about how empowering young talent, even if they have little experience, is the way to grow a company.  "Virgin's ability to grow and diversify successfully was set in the company's early days, with my learning how to delegate and let go. When employees tell you about their good ideas for the business, don't limit your response.... ask those people to lead their projects and take responsibility for them. From those experiences, they will then have built the confidence to take on more and you can take a further step back."

So how does a regular, middle class boy from the countryside of Surrey, who is in fact dyslexic and failed maths in school, get to be one of the most successful billionaires of our time?

“From a very young age I wanted to create something and make a difference.”  This seems to be the key driving force behind everything Branson has created, with the idea of taking something and making it better.  Take Virgin Airlines for instance –an airline that not only offers quality service but something unique, like video screens in the backs of chairs for entertainment.  This idea didn’t come cheaply, but through creative partnerships and financing, Branson was able to make his vision a reality which singlehandedly raised the quality standards for the entire airline industry.

Creativity goes hand in hand with being nimble and flexible, holding the big vision and maintaining foresight to deal with financial challenges. Surviving three recessions as well as 9/11 and still managing to come out on top requires all those things. To keep Virgin Atlantic afloat during the downturn of the airline industry, he was forced to sell some assets to retain liquidity and had to let go a number of employees as a short-term solution.  But there was a caveat:  a promise to re-hire the staff that was let go the moment things were fixed.  Within 12 months, everyone was rehired.  How would you have liked to be one of those people working for Richard Branson at that time?

But Sir Richard has always been unconventional, dabbling in completely different industries, from music, to airlines, to health and fitness….and even condoms, although not using the Virgin brand itself for that one.  He describes Virgin as a “lifestyle” brand, and defends his diverse portfolio of businesses as his love for learning new things and being curious about how things work. 

Of course no billionaire can survive without having a sense of humor, and Branson has that too…dressing up in drag as a bride when he had the bright idea of launching “Virgin Brides.”  That one didn’t make the final cut.

Having reached this much success and having a private island to enjoy it all from doesn’t keep Branson from reaching for more.  His next big idea: Virgin Galactic – the first commercial shuttle into space will be ready to launch in close to 15 months. I know I’m waiting for the price of that ticket to come down from the initial price of $200K– which Branson believes will happen over time, making it completely affordable for regular people to take a ride into space.

And he continues to make a difference – with Virgin Unite working with children in third world countries, and a group called the “Elders” made up of Nelson Mandela and others whose main purpose is to stop conflicts from emerging in hot areas in the world.   All this is driven by Branson’s ability to stay human amongst his great wealth and his commitment to make the world a better place.

Now imagine if ALL business leaders were like Sir Richard Branson? What do you think would be different in the economy and in the world today if we ALL cared about our employees, treated them like our own, and were dedicated to having our teams flourish and thrive?  What would be different if empathy, compassion, and humility were the main values in business today?

Human business IS the business of tomorrow.  And Sir Richard Branson embodies just that.  Hat’s off Sir.