I think the most important thing about running a company is to remember all the time what a company is. A company is simply a group of people. As a leader of people, you have to be a great listener, and you have to be a great motivator. You have to be very good at praising and looking for the best in people. People are no different from flowers. If you water flowers, they flourish. If you praise people, they flourish, and that’s a critical attribute of a leader.
There’s a very thin dividing line between success and failure. Most people who sell often business without financial backing, they fail at sometimes in their lives, and I’ve only just stayed at the right side of that dividing line. For instance, just after we had a record company, I was fed up flying on other people’s airlines. I felt that the experience of flying on other people’s airlines was an unpleasant one, and I decided to set up an airline.
Our bank went into complete panic attack. When I came back from doing the inaugural flight of Virgin Atlantic’s very, very first flight from London to New York, I came back to find the bank manager sitting on my doorstep and informing me that they were going to close Virgin down on Monday, and this was the Friday, and that I had two days to effectively pay them off the money that they loaned us.
I remember pushing the bank manager out of my house, telling him he wasn’t welcome, which is a dangerous thing to do to your bank manager, and then spending the weekend ringing around the world to all of the distributors of our music, asking if they could give us a temporary loan to get us through the following week, which they were good enough to do. By the end of the week, we changed banks. We actually managed to find a bank who was willing to lend us 30 times the overdraft facility that our bank had lent us, and we managed to survive.
I think the moral of that story is actually don’t think of your bank as somebody that you’re beholding to. Just don’t move from one bank to another. Sometimes, you need to be willing to step up and move your banks in the same way that you’d step up and move your doctoral occasions. Anyway, I learned from that lesson.
Virgin does work very well without me. I used myself to build the brand, to build 300 or 400 companies around the world, but I also learned the art of delegation. I have a fantastic team of people who run the Virgin companies, give them a lot of freedom to run the companies as if they were their own companies. I give them the freedom to make mistakes, and the Virgin brand is now maybe one of the top 20 brands in the world. Well-respected. When my balloon bursts, Virgin will continue to flourish, and maybe I had the icing on the cake on occasions. Maybe they’ll have to spend a bit more money on marketing, but fortunately, Virgin is in a state where it can live on healthfully without me.