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Branson is the founder and president of Virgin Group, a worldwide-recognized brand of more than 300 companies in 30 countries. He was the keynote speaker for the opening session Sunday, June 26, 2011, at the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) 63rd Annual Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas, and took questions from general session emcee Juana Hart Akers and via text and Twitter from audience members.
Virgin has expanded into air and rail travel, hospitality and leisure, telecommunications, health and wellness, and clean energy.
He was knighted in 1998 for “services to entrepreneurship,” which has included pledging 100 percent of profits of Virgin transportation companies to clean-tech investments.
In 2006, Branson launched Virgin Unite, the global charitable leg of Virgin Group. That came about from a feeling, he said, that “nobody was out there trying to resolve conflict” in the world.
In 2011, he launched the Carbon War Room, which focuses on bringing together successful entrepreneurs, business leaders, policy experts, researchers and thought leaders to find market-driven solutions to climate change.
“I don’t think it’s worth starting a business unless you’re going to make a real difference in the world...and get in the fat belly of a company and giving it a prod,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“Every single company...should be a force for good” and HR can be a part of that influence, he said. For smaller companies, that can mean making a difference in their communities.
Branson credited luck and inquisitiveness as ingredients to his success. “I’ve been pulled out of the sea five times” in various attempts to break world records traveling the globe. In 1986 he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his “Virgin Atlantic Challenger II” in the fastest recorded time.
He also takes pains not to cut corners.
“It doesn’t cost that much extra to make your product sing and dance,” he observed.
He also often promotes from within at his companies. The key is finding the right people and then giving them the “freedom to make mistakes,” and empower them to run the company as if it were their own.
Don’t “always think of the switchboard operator as the switchboard operator and the cleaning lady as the cleaning lady,” he said, noting that a former cleaning lady at one of his companies now runs his record label.
He also tries to keep the number of employees to 100 in any one building so that people get to know each other, and advocated that employers have 100 percent trust in their HR professionals.
Not everything he’s tried has succeeded, he told Akers.
“You wouldn’t be a proper entrepreneur if everything was a success,” he said, pointing to a soda company he created with the dream of unseating Coca-Cola. It’s number one in Bangladesh, but not in America, he said to laughter.
Branson is the author of several books, including
Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur (Virgin Books, 2010) and
Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way (Crown Business, 1999).
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for SHRM.
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