Branson cites his early management decisions at Virgin Records as prime examples of this people-oriented approach:
At Virgin records we attracted some of the best artists because they liked the way we ran it. We never lost a major artist in 20 years which is quite rare in the record industry. We dressed as we felt comfortable. We worked in pleasant buildings rather than office blocks and people working there had fun, enjoyed the job, enjoyed challenging, taking on the major record companies. (Glancey & McQuaid, 2000, p. 94)
If Virgin Records was going to about catering to the musical tastes of a new generation, then the company that supplied those wants was going to have to be a company that operated in accord with the views and aspirations of that new generation. Traditional business attire and the smug accoutrements of the typical corporate headquarters would be dispensed with in order to create an atmosphere more in tune with the nature of the business; its employees, and its clientele.
For many years, Branson has cultivated an almost anti-corporate image. He shows up for meeting wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt and his hair is unkempt. He likes to tell people that he dropped out of school at fifteen (Garten, 2000, p. 115), rather than play up his education background as do many other CEO's or persons in positions of influence. The ambience at corporate headquarters is casual, relaxed, and non-threatening. The powerful owner of one's of the world's mega-corporations likes people to know that he prefers carousing with ordinary employees to black-tie dinners and formal parties:
Last night, when I came to New York, I was very tired," he said. "But I made absolutely sure that I took one hundred and fifty [of my employees] out -- not to a formal dinner but to Mr. Chow's [so that we could] let our hair down, get drunk and have a good time. But I also sat down and listened and talked to them and made notes which I dealt with the next day. And it's often... The little things that can turn a positive workforce against a company. (Garten, 2000, p. 115)
Richard Branson likes to show himself off as an outsider bucking the establishment and its ideas. He will use familiar language, and does not refrain from expressing dissatisfaction with figures presumed to have not kept their promises to the public or to the organizations they manage and control. Regarding a scheme to take over the Royal Opera House,
Richard Branson ("Virgin MegaSing"). No, when we are sitting round the conference table in his office he produces some pop paper, whose front cover has a pic of the Master and the headline "You cheated us Tony, now piss off!" (Charles, 1998, p. 9)
Branson is the "everyman" at the helm of a multinational corporation.
Perhaps a good part of Richard Branson and Virgin's success can be attributed to seamless blending of an apparently unconventional leadership style with the traditional attributes of the successful corporate executive and entrepreneur. While Branson is careful to let his employees, associates, and the public see the unconventional leader who says what he thinks and does what he feels is right, there is also another side to the business genius.
Richard Branson, the head of Virgin, is a fairly ruthless, driven businessman, like most very successful capitalists, but he has caught the zeitgeist. People wanted to believe that you could be a hard-nosed businessman, not wear a tie, be a bit of a fun guy and listen to pop music. And that is what he represented; it was a simplified ideal... Such icons will continue to pop up. The fact that we are an advanced society does not mean that people do not want these simple stereotypes. (Davies, Chun, Silva & Roper, 2003, p. 43)
Richard Branson's leadership style is a combination of a highly-accessible, and cutting edge public image with many of the values and characteristics formerly and usually associated with successful corporate empire builders. Branson would like the world to believe that he built up a gigantic conglomerate by partying, making the occasional vulgar comment, and indulging a taste for the new and unusual in music and art i.e. By acting like a perpetual teen or college student, but there is another reality. Branson knows how to work the public. He knows how to play the corporate game. And he knows what the marketplace wants. He uses popular trends to enhance the standing of the brand he has created Virgin - and to increase his own wealth.
Sir Richard Branson stands tall as one of today's great entrepreneurial success stories. From relatively humble beginnings, Branson built up a corporate empire from a small mail order record business. Branson achieved success by exemplifying a leadership style which relied strongly on public image - his own personal image and the image of his company - Virgin. Over the years, Virgin has become a globally-recognized brand virtually indistinguishable from its owner. Virgin has attached itself to an ever-widening range of ventures and products from records, to airlines, to health clubs, to exotic vacation locales, to juice bars - the list goes on and on. Always, Virgin is associated with youth and innovation. Virgin is anti-establishment and yet upwardly mobile. The corporation and its owner and founder seek out the qualities that will mark out their enterprises as leading the way in popular causes like environmentalism. Branson and Virgin are eco-friendly; concerned with created a livable planet and sustainable civilization. Yet, these goals are also facets of a global marketing scheme. Trendy young consumers - the most sought after market of all by big corporations - will spend huge amounts of money to buy upmarket items that claim to be environmentally-friendly, humane, and conducive to world peace, and sane development of the developing world. Richard Branson is successful because he has captured and embodied the ethos of the cutting edge; but he is also successful because he has understood that the cutting edge - whether environmentalist or outlandish - is something that sells in today's marketplace.
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