Richard Branson saunters into the room, looking famished and a tad tired. He helps himself to some sandwiches, before somebody reminds him that they are cold. Dressed in a plain white shirt and creamish trousers, he doesn’t look like your usual multi-billionaire. But then there’s nothing usual about Richard Branson—not any day. The day Business Today
met him, Branson jumped off a 35-storey hotel building to launch Virgin’s mobile operations in India. Later in the evening, he would go on to twirl an unsuspecting Bollywood starlet like a WWE prizefighter. Branson was in India to announce the launch of the company’s mobile operations in India. Virgin has launched its Virgin Mobile brand in India targeted at Indian youth, in a franchisee agreement with Tata Teleservices. Virgin will launch its service in 50 cities, expanding to more than 1,000 cities by the end of the year. Virgin Mobile estimates that there are about 215 million urban youth mobile subscribers and an expected additional 50 million urban youth subscribers over the next three years. It expects revenue in this segment to be excess of Rs 35,000 crore by 2010. In a freewheeling chat withBT’sT.V. Mahalingam
, 57-year-old Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, spoke about capitalism, leaping off buildings, Bollywood, James Bond and, of course, the group’s plans for India. Excerpts:What makes a 57-year-old jump off buildings? What makes you tick?
I am a great believer that capitalism has proven to be the only thing that works. Communism has been tried and failed. Socialism has been tried and failed. The problem with capitalism is that wealth comes only to a few people. If you are one of those fortunate people who has that wealth, it’s important to care to redistribute that wealth by investing in new areas, employ new people. It should be on a global basis. Over 50 per cent of my time is used to creating new business; the rest 50 per cent of my time is spent on using the money to tackle social issues that the world is facing. And if I have 250 people (in a country like India) creating a good quality new business, the least I can do is make sure the story appears on the front page of the newspaper instead of the back page. To be perfectly honest, I don’t feel any different from the way I used to feel when I was 20 years old. I don’t behave much differently than I did when I was 20 years old. And I enjoy myself and like people around me enjoying themselves. I like to make people smile. I think if you take yourself too seriously, life gets boring. If I come to India with my sherry and my English suit, I don’t think it would have captured the imagination of people. So, I like to throw myself into anything I do and sometimes I like to throw myself off anything I do.As an entrepreneur how have you changed over the years, since the days you published Student Magazine?
| “I think India is still quite protectionist. India is strong enough to say ‘let’s have an open society’… the consumer would benefit from that”|
I am sure that as I have become older—and it’s illogical—that I have become more cautious when it comes to personal risk taking, especially after one or two instances when I did not nearly survive. For instance, I am doing a Bollywood film tonight. So, I went to the sets at 2 a.m. this morning to do a run through and one of the things involved riding a motorcycle through a glass wall. There was something that said to me “there’s something that’s not quite right here”. So, I suggested that I shoot the glass wall down instead of running the motorbike through it. When I fired the bullets to shoot it down, the explosive that was meant to break the glass wall did not go off. So, if I had used the bike, I would have ended up with a big headache. Maybe with the experience of doing some of these things, I am a bit more cautious. But in business itself, I am pretty bold, I still hold on to the philosophy—nothing ventured, nothing gained. I am not too afraid of failure. I love to challenge people around me. I love challenging myself.In the past, you have said that India has been unwelcoming to foreign investors. Has that changed at all?
I think India is still quite protectionist. I think it was justified in being protectionist, you know, 50 years ago. In the last 20-30 years, that’s held India back. I lobbied for 15 years to fly Virgin Atlantic to and from London. It took about six different aviation ministers before we got permission. In the past, people had to fly to Middle East to get to London. I think that our success in opening up the skies has done its bit in helping India to flourish because it also opened up the domestic aviation scene. But we cannot set up a domestic airline; we cannot set up financial services, we couldn’t set up a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) in India in the mobile space… retail is still restricted. There are quite a lot of areas where India is still restricted. India is strong enough to say ‘let’s have an open society’… the consumer would benefit from that.Why launch a telecom service for the youth alone?
You can never be an old brand and appeal to a younger group, (but) if you are a youth brand, you can always appeal to an older market later. We found that in other countries, where we aimed our offerings at the youth market, we had 45-, 65-year-old people buying our products. I think the youth market is still large with 400 million people in the age group that we are targeting. Expanding would be relatively easy as we move into GSM and post-paid, where we will get an older age group as well.
What are the sectors in India where you see an opportunity to, like you say, “shake up the market, challenge the norm”?
(Laughs) I promised not to talk about anything new today, (but) we have people looking at expanding our radio network into other cities. City hotels is a possibility. But it’s early days. Right now, we are going to concentrate to get the Virgin brand going with mobile, try to get the rights to run a domestic airline one day and if the financial industry opens up, that’s a scenario we would like to look at some day.Low-cost products and price differentiation seem to be a major play in India in most sectors… be it aviation, retail or even telecom. How does Virgin plan to tailor its offerings in this market?
Pure low cost normally does not survive. If you look at Air Deccan, it did not survive. It was eaten up by Kingfisher. I think just low-cost companies in any sector do not survive long term. The companies that survive are the ones that offer the best quality in that sector. Virgin America or Virgin Blue in Australia are the two best companies flying their respective countries domestically—best entertainment systems, best cabin crews, best seating, lighting—but because they are so popular and so full, we can offer competitive rates as well. I think that’s the way to go about it.Virgin Comics has a lot of Indian content with comics like Devi, Ramayan 3392 AD. Is there a market for that kind of content globally? How’s the response been?
It’s been good. I think the breakthrough will come when features are made from some of those comics and I am sure that will happen in the not-so-distant future. We have comics made by directors of feature films, hopefully films will emerge from them.Sony has made a venture into Indian film production. Do you see a venture into Indian entertainment in the future?
It’s certainly a possibility but we have no certain plans at the moment.How do you balance the desire to be the best in the business without becoming big, bad business that you tend to challenge all the time?
| “Even though the Virgin brand is strong on a global basis, we are still hungry. In India, we would like to be the big, bad wolf”|
Though we have 300 companies, they are the underdog in every sector. So, we don’t dominate any sector. In each sector, we are biting at the heels of the big giants. And collectively even though the Virgin brand is strong on a global basis, we are still hungry and quick on the feet. In India, with our mobile venture, we would like to be the big, bad wolf, but we have many years of hard work to go.
I believe the next Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, has begun filming. Any plans to do a cameo in that like the last movie, Casino Royale?
(Smiles) They are using a lot of Virgin in the movie. They are using the upper class lounge at Heathrow but I haven’t got a call yet to do a cameo… but I have moved to Bollywood. Tonight, I will do my first spot in a Bollywood movie… and I have a line in the movie. It’s “My name is Branson…Richard Branson” (laughs).
You’ve been a businessman, adventurer, fledgling actor, what’s next?
I suppose it has to be an astronaut, isn’t it? Obviously that with Virgin Galactic in 18 months time.
Do you see a demand for Virgin Galactic from countries like India? Or is it just from the developing countries?
Yes, I am sure everybody would like to go to space some day. I met an Indian who signed up yesterday, the demand will be enormous. The price will eventually come down… some day, thousands of Indians will hopefully travel to space.
Recently, Virgin flew Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam with one of its four engines using a bio-fuel that was a mixture of oils from coconut and the babassu nut. You have been criticised and lampooned by several people, including environmentalists. How do you handle criticism?
If you are going to have technological breakthroughs, you are going to have to try things. What Boeing, Virgin and GE Engines wanted to prove was that biofuel could fly at 35,000 feet without freezing. In the past, it would freeze at 15,000 feet. Having proved that, all I would like to say to people who have criticised the idea is that ‘if you have a better idea, we would love to hear about it’. We think that the best way to deal with global warming is to develop a biofuel that’s clean.