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30 June 2016

"Shaking up dull businesses": an audience with Sir Richard Branson

Content team

Yesterday I attended a hugely entertaining conference and awards dinner at Sir Richard Branson's rain-soaked family home in Oxfordshire.

My golden ticket was in recognition of the detailed company data that Bureau van Dijk supplies from its Fame database to help compile the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list, which Sir Richard's Virgin Group sponsors. Representatives of these top-performing companies were also out in force at the high-octane event.

All about the family

Sir Richard was interviewed on stage by Virgin Group's CEO, Josh Bayliss, before taking questions from the floor.

He focused on the culture of family businesses – the group is still privately owned, and staff include his daughter and son – and he outlined the importance of company values, brand integrity and reputation management. That last one struck a particular chord with me, having produced this white paper on getting to know your third parties through better due diligence.

Quizzed on his latest commercial venture, Branson said that it was because he's never seen the appeal of cruise ships himself that he recently decided to buy three and turn them into something fun. "So you take dull businesses and shake them up?" asked Bayliss, getting a nod from his boss and a round of applause.

But most of Sir Richard's day-to-day activities now focus on philanthropic works – poverty alleviation, gay rights, banning the death penalty, renewable energy, carbon reduction and the like. And over £100,000 was raised in the after-dinner charity auction.

He was at perhaps his most candid when asked about his rare business failures, citing Virgin Cola as an example of an enterprise where the sheer might of the opposition was too great to counter.


Other speakers included Rosemary Squire OBE, co-founder of the Ambassador Theatre Group – who, looking at the predominantly male audience, poignantly joked that the best thing about these events was that you don't have to queue for the toilet – and David Buttress, CEO and co-founder of Just Eat, which was floated in 2014 after only eight years' trading in the UK.

Working for an information provider, I was interested in Buttress's use of big data. In the course of building an army of participating restaurants who take orders through his app, he's able to gather data on user behaviours and preferences, which he then feeds back to his partners so that they can improve their offering.

And with my sales and marketing hat on I was impressed with his use of "personas". Tying in with their data analysis, this insight means they can send discount vouchers and other offers at times of the day and week when their users are most likely to use them.

Throwing some "disruption" into the mix was a panel discussion chaired by Simon Duke of the Sunday Times, featuring three Jameses – McClure, Timpson and Watt – representing Airbnb, Timpson and BrewDog respectively.

Each company in its own way bucks the trends and received wisdom of mainstream business, the most inspirational example in my view being James Timpson's policy of hiring reformed ex-prisoners. His chain of shoe-repair and key-cutting shops now has 10% of such employees on its payroll. He also tells his staff to "charge what they like", up to a maximum sale price, giving away 5% of what they sell.

It's easy to dismiss these ideas but the company is thriving and the repeat-offender rate among these people is next to nothing.

Home time

I left feeling happy to have contributed in my small way to such an uplifting experience.

As the station shuttle bus trundled along the temporary road surface on the muddy estate, its driver fastidiously obeying the 5mph signs, the irony that this had all been a celebration of companies on a fast track didn't detract from my general sense of wellbeing and quiet awe.

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Content team, Bureau van Dijk

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