Listen and read Karl Fitzpatrick’s exclusive interview with celebrated entrepreneur and Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson.
More than 55 years ago a then young entrepreneur called Richard Branson began what was to become the Virgin empire. His first business venture at 16 was a magazine called The Student, followed by a mail-order chain of record stores, Virgin Records. In the years that followed Branson’s empire grew to include retail, rail, mobile, TV, broadband, airlines and more, and his adventures included ballooning across the Atlantic. Last year he flew to the edge of space aboard the Virgin Galactic Unity 22. His latest business, Virgin Voyages, is on a mission to disrupt the highly competitive cruise industry.
Karl Fitzpatrick is the CEO of Chevron College one of the biggest e-learning players focused on providing certified training programmes in the healthcare, childcare and renewable energy sectors to more than 5,000 students per annum. The business recently acquired a Dublin-based Oiliúna Training and is creating 50 jobs over the next two years. Operating from a state-of-the-art training centre in Blanchardstown, Oiliúna has vast experience in delivering career-focused education programmes in the areas of business, management and IT.
“If you can inspire and motivate your team, then you can create miracles. If they genuinely feel they’ve been given the tools to do a great job, they will smile, they’ll be happy, they’ll be proud, and then you, as a customer, will have a great experience”
Fitzpatrick is also the host of Business Matters on South East Radio and landed this exclusive interview with Sir Richard Branson. We interviewed Karl recently for the ThinkBusiness Podcast and are delighted to feature his interview with Richard here.
Click on the YouTube link below for audio or read the entire interview transcript below:
FITZPATRICK: Hello, Richard, and thank you so much for joining us on Business Matters.
BRANSON: Always good to talk to you.
FITZPATRICK: Richard, I’d like to start by speaking to you about your latest venture, Virgin Voyages. So what inspired you to get involved in the highly competitive cruise industry?
BRANSON: The same reason that we’ve got involved in pretty well every business in my lifetime. So we got involved in the airline business because, you know, I got bumped off a flight and I had to hire a plane to get to where I wanted to go, and airlines did bump people, and I felt maybe we could create our own airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and try to treat people well. And, with cruises, it wasn’t something that enormously appealed to me, but I thought if we could create the kind of cruise company that myself and my friends would like to go on, initially make it adults only so it would be, you know, fun for adults to go on it, and that we could create something really different and something that, that addressed all the sort of issues that people disliked about cruises, and I think the team at Virgin Voyages have done a fantastic job in doing that. They’ve won pretty well every award there is to win, you know, Best Cruise Line, Best Staff, best everything, Best Food, and really proud of what they’ve created.
“I remember on the very first Virgin Atlantic plane, looking around the cabin and thinking ‘Wow’, you know, ‘This is great. They’re smiling. They’re happy’, you know. But can this last, you know, 10, 20, 30, and now nearly 40 years? And it has”
FITZPATRICK: So for those that haven’t travelled on the Virgin Voyages as of yet, what is Virgin Voyages doing differently?
BRANSON: Well, down to basics like no buffet, I mean it has got some of the best restaurants in the world on the ship. Lots of different kinds of restaurants. We’ve got 1,200 delightful staff from 84 different nations working on this ship. We’ve got great entertainment. We’ve got great sort of massage, workout facilities, fitness facilities, running tracks, we’ve created, lovely places on the route, like Bimini Beach Club, that’s a fantastic fun place for people to go and chill out from the ship. We visit many destinations. I mean we do both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. We’re now about to send a ship to Australia to do Australia and we’ve got one or two other tricks up our sleeve which we’ll be announcing soon.
FITZPATRICK: And what are the greatest lessons that you’ve learned in business over the past 50 years?
BRANSON: To realise that all a business is, is a group of people. So, you know everybody can have a ship, well not everybody, but a lot of people can have a ship, a lot of people can have a plane, a lot of people can have a train, but it’s the people on these things that matter. So, if you can inspire and motivate your team, then you can create miracles. If they genuinely feel they’ve been given the tools to do a great job, they will smile, they’ll be happy, they’ll be proud, and then you, as a customer, will have a great experience.
FITZPATRICK: And how do you go about building that team and cultivating that culture?
BRANSON: Well, I think it goes back to the Virgin roots. I remember on the very first Virgin Atlantic plane, looking around the cabin and thinking “Wow”, you know, “This is great. They’re smiling. They’re happy”, you know. But can this last, you know, 10, 20, 30, and now nearly 40 years? And it has because I think they’re proud of the company, they’re proud of its history, they’re proud of the fact that, when British Airways tried to push us out of business, that we fought and we survived. They’re proud of the fact that we got through Covid, with all the planes grounded. They’re proud of that we got through 9-11. I mean there has been lots of challenges thrown at them, and I think the companies have come out the stronger, the stronger, and still offering a great service.
“I did actually leave school quite young because of my dyslexia, and my education was education of life, and the things that I’m good at, I think I excelled at, and the things I wasn’t good at, I think I was quite a good delegator at, because I had to be, and, therefore, I’ve surrounded myself with great people.”
FITZPATRICK: Of course the Virgin Group is involved in so many different sectors and industries at this stage, but how do you go about identifying new business opportunities?
BRANSON: By and large from frustration. I mean I’ve always wanted to go to space. I’ve always wanted to go to space. It was obvious that governments weren’t interested in us going to space, and so we set up Virgin Galactic, and I had the great privilege of having the most extraordinary day of my life going to space, and over the next very few weeks we’re going to be starting to take other people to space, and hopefully this year will be the start of a really exciting time for Virgin Galactic.
FITZPATRICK: Provide us with an insight into how it felt, that euphoric feeling that you had on that particular day going to space?
BRANSON: It is so difficult to explain. First of all, I had my grandkids there, I had my children there. From the second I woke up this was going to be the best day of my life! Best day of our lives. And we had spent 20 years building this company and these spaceships, and I was surprised by Elon when I got out of bed, which was very sweet of him. And it wasn’t long into the day that we were going from naught to three and a 3,500 miles per hour in eight seconds, the roar of the rocket, the pressure on the chest, and then the complete silence of space and the magnificent views back to this beautiful earth, and unbuckling and just floating out from the seat and realising that, yeah, we were there. It was just extraordinary.
“Well, there’s no point in just doing something that has been done before. You’ve got to try to innovate and create something, you know, something very different, and I think we’re lucky that we’ve got years of wonderful designers and innovators who work for us”
FITZPATRICK: And, Richard, when Virgin goes into a new industry, talk to me about your approach to innovation?
BRANSON: Well, there’s no point in just doing something that has been done before. You’ve got to try to innovate and create something, you know, something very different, and I think we’re lucky that we’ve got years of wonderful designers and innovators who work for us. So, when we designed Virgin Voyages, the cruise line, we literally took a blank sheet of paper, we drew two lines ‑ all the things not to do which other cruise ships maybe are doing, and all the things to do ‑ and then our designers set about, you know, creating magic and, you can walk into the Virgin Upper Class Lounge at Heathrow, or a Virgin plane or a Virgin Voyages cruise ship, or a Virgin spaceship and it just feels very, very different. I mean our Virgin Galactic Spaceship is how you would imagine as a kid a spaceship should be. It’s not a rocket on the ground that launches, it’s a proper spaceship. You travel in the spaceship, you land in the spaceship, and it is a great experience.
FITZPATRICK: And how has your dyslexia acted as your super power over the years?
BRANSON: I think the good thing about dyslexia is that I’m proud to say I’m a dyslexic thinker ‑ is that you’re not necessarily good at conventional learning methods in conventional schools, and by rejecting, you know, by not being good at that, you end up excelling at things that you are good at. And I did actually leave school quite young because of my dyslexia, and my education was education of life, and the things that I’m good at, I think I excelled at, and the things I wasn’t good at, I think I was quite a good delegator at, because I had to be, and, therefore, I’ve surrounded myself with great people.
“I am still as motivated to create things that I can be proud of. I still love learning from people. I still love meeting people. I still love listening to all sorts of different people and every single person teaches you something. I still am determined to change the world for the better”
FITZPATRICK: And at 72‑years‑young, what motivates you and how has that changed over the years?
BRANSON: I am still as motivated to create things that I can be proud of. I still love learning from people. I still love meeting people. I still love listening to all sorts of different people and every single person teaches you something. I still am determined to change the world for the better. I mean as a teenager I set up a centre for young people to try to help young people with problems. Now we’ve set up bigger maybe global organisations like The Elders or the Global Drug Commission trying to get governments to treat drugs as a health problem and not a criminal problem. The Elders that we set up with Mandela and Archbishop Tutu and Kofi Annan, that Mary Robinson is now Chairing and doing an incredible job in, is trying to bring an end to conflicts, trying to speak out on climate change, setting up organisations like Girls Not Brides, pushing very, very hard for equality for women, and a general understanding for, other minority groups that are left out. So, you know, we’ve been unbelievably lucky to have Mary Robinson as Chair of The Elders.
FITZPATRICK: We’re very proud of Mary Robinson here in Ireland, of course. What do you admire about her specifically?
BRANSON: Everything really, to be honest. I know it sounds ‑‑ but her humour, her relentless pursuit of justice, her relentless pursuit for women’s rights, being very outspoken on issues like climate change, but just, never stopping. I mean she works day and night relentlessly. She has the most wonderful husband who is incredibly supportive of her work, wonderful family as well. But, anyway, she’s just one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.
“ In the last 55 years, entrepreneurism has exploded, and that is wonderful, because I think it is entrepreneurs that change the world for the better, because if you do not create a business that is making people’s lives better, you don’t have a business”
FITZPATRICK: Wow! So what do you see as the future of entrepreneurship?
BRANSON: I think entrepreneurship is, I mean when I started as an entrepreneur 55 years ago there was two of us in the UK. There was Anita Roddick, who was the woman entrepreneur, and Richard Branson, who was the male entrepreneur, and if anybody wanted to interview an entrepreneur, they would ring up one or other of us. In the last 55 years, entrepreneurism has exploded, and that is wonderful, because I think it is entrepreneurs that change the world for the better, because if you do not create a business that is making people’s lives better, you don’t have a business. So, there are lots and lots and lots and lots of entrepreneurs out there, or young people who are trying to look for gaps in the market and see how they can do it better than it has been done before, and the world has, I think, generally become a better place because of it.
We have something called StartUp loans in the UK where we have 4,000 young entrepreneurs that we mentor and help get their businesses up and running, and we do the same in the British Virgin Islands, you know, we have a StartUp loan programme there, and, yeah, it’s magical what a lot of these young people, or not so young people, are managing to achieve.
“We’ve had in the process some spectacular failures, and all I can say is you have to just learn from them, brush yourself down and move forward”
FITZPATRICK: And do you think that entrepreneurs get the credit that they deserve?
BRANSON: I think by and large. I think people do understand by and large that entrepreneurs are making a difference for them. I think if somebody knows somebody that’s running a little business, they’re an entrepreneur, even if it is, you know, a little local grocery shop, and collectively, they are the people that employ the most people in the world and they’re the people that make the real difference.
I’m afraid that governments are, again, just a group of people, but they’re not really equipped to run businesses, I mean and mainly because government ministers are generally only in the job for three or four years and ‑‑ if that ‑‑ and that’s not their skill, and that’s not what their skills should be. That should be left up to entrepreneurs.
FITZPATRICK: And looking back at your own career in business over the past 55 years, is there anything that you would have done differently if you could go back and do it all over again?
BRANSON: We’ve had in the process some spectacular failures, and all I can say is you have to just learn from them, brush yourself down and move forward, and I’m fortunate I’m the kind of person that I will fight tooth and nail to make sure something succeeds, but if it fails, I won’t dwell on it at all, I’ll just move forward on to the next project. And any entrepreneur is going to have failures. I mean, you can’t just go through life without any failures at all, so you just have to accept that you are going to have occasional failure on the way.
FITZPATRICK: And what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders this morning?
BRANSON: Screw it just do it.
“Virgin literally started, with that £200 from a necklace. And obviously one thing led on to another and some things went well and some things not quite so well. But generally speaking I think we’re quite proud of what has been created.”
FITZPATRICK: One question that I was asked to put to you by many listeners over the past number of weeks is regarding your approach to problem solving. When you’re faced with a problem, how do you go about addressing it?
BRANSON: I’ll work day and night to solve a problem. I’ll rally, you know, my best team of people around me to help solve the problem. But if it’s a problem that ultimately does not get solved, I will not dwell on it, I will pick myself up the next day and move forward. So I think the main lesson is just do everything you can to sort out the problem, look at every which way.
I’ll give you one fun example. We had a team of people to develop seatback videos for planes and, um, and we just couldn’t get the $10 million to put them on our planes. We were a very, very small airline, but we wanted to be five years ahead of British Airways in having seatback videos on our planes. And I was sitting down trying to think, how can I get $10 million to put seatback videos in all our planes? Then I had an idea and I rang up Boeing and I said “You’ve got some brand new 747‑400s that I noticed you’re trying to sell. If we switched our whole fleet out for your 747‑400s, would you like to sell them to us?”, and they said “Yes, that would be great”. “Would you lend us the money for it?”, “Yes, we’d lend you most of the money for it”. “Would you put seatback videos in on all these planes?”, “Yes, we’ll be delighted to put seatback videos on all these planes.” So, I ended up borrowing $2 billion in order to do a $10 million loan for the seatback videos. So it’s trying all the time to think ‑‑ that horrible phrase ‑‑ outside the box, to get your problems solved.
FITZPATRICK: And don’t think big, think bigger. That’s really the message, isn’t it?
BRANSON: Yeah, I mean these are big figures and it’s all relative. I mean if I go right back to my childhood ‑‑ how can I have, how can I find some money to put coins in a phone box so that I could sell advertising for my magazine? And that all came about because my Mum found a necklace and handed it into the police and nobody claimed it and she was given the necklace and she sold it for a couple of hundred pounds and she kindly gave me the money for my time in the phone box. So, you know, Virgin literally started, with that £200 from a necklace. And obviously one thing led on to another and some things went well and some things not quite so well. But generally speaking I think we’re quite proud of what has been created.
“if somebody was to set up a business in Ireland going around showing people how to reduce their energy emissions, maybe taking a small percentage of what they’ve saved, I mean that would be doing a great service to the world, and a great service to the individual, and a great service to themselves. So it’s trying to think of things like that that is a win/win all round”
FITZPATRICK: And, of course, you’ve had a lifelong love affair with risk and taking risk. But how do you evaluate risk?
BRANSON: I think ideally you’ve got to try to protect the downside in every move you make. So, you know, like when we started the airline with one plane, I did a deal with Boeing where we could hand that plane back at the end of the first year if people didn’t like the airline. Fortunately they did like the airline and then we got a couple more planes. So, you’ve just got to make sure that anything you do is not going to put everything else at risk, you know. Take risks but make sure that if it goes wrong you can afford for it to go wrong.
FITZPATRICK: And looking then at a very general level, what other sectors do you think are ripe for disruption right now?
BRANSON: Well, the world needs clean energy and tonnes and tonnes of it. So I mean I think, I mean like most homes in Ireland, I suspect, emit more energy than they need and so if somebody was to set up a business in Ireland going around showing people how to reduce their energy emissions, maybe taking a small percentage of what they’ve saved, I mean that would be doing a great service to the world, and a great service to the individual, and a great service to themselves. So it’s trying to think of things like that that is a win/win all round.
FITZPATRICK: And, finally, of course, this week saw you opening a new hotel in New York, but it also saw you filing for bankruptcy for Virgin Orbit. What type of a week was it for you in that respect and how disappointed were you in relation to Virgin Orbit?
BRANSON: So obviously delighted that we took on some hundreds of people to launch a magnificent hotel in New York, and we were there to celebrate that. Virgin Orbit has been, been really tough. I mean we had four very successful flights putting satellites into space, and then we came to the UK to do the fifth flight out of Cornwall and it didn’t go right, and it was at a time when the team, the team were fund‑raising, and the fund‑raising ‑ I mean the market is not good, and it hasn’t gone well and we’ll have to see what happens over the next few weeks. I mean there’s a still a chance that something may emerge. But, you know, it’s one of those, yeah, tough, tough things that can happen in business and something you just have to accept on occasions will happen.