Only in the country for the second time and on a 15-hour layover, English Sir Richard Branson wowed an audience of nearly 800, mostly well-known business personalities, at the ABS-CBN News Channel’s (ANC) first “Asian Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum” held Wednesday, May 25.
The flamboyant Branson, who started as an entrepreneur when he was 16 launching a magazine called Student, said to the young thinking to get into entrepreneurship, “If you have a good idea, screw it just do it.”
Sixty-five-year-old Branson, whose Virgin Group is composed of around 400 companies with core businesses that include travel, entertainment, and lifestyle, along with financial services, transport, healthcare, food and drink, media and telecommunications, further said that if you are 16 and you have a business idea, make that your education, “get on with it, give it a try.”
But if you are 16 and do not have an idea yet, then get yourself schooled, he added. If your business idea failed, “education is a good fall back,” Branson said.
He also added that families should encourage their children to try entrepreneurship as it is a force for good.
Branson, who now has three grandchildren (including twins from daughter Holly) said like a baby, entrepreneurs must learn to walk. If they fall, they should learn to stand up and try to walk again, “until you learn how to do it.”
Chasing your dream, working hard, caring for people
Branson, who dreamt about traveling to space since the moon landing, is focus now on making commercial space travel affordable to all (which he admitted it is currently priced steeply at $250,000 or P11.67 million), said “we’re very close to realizing that dream” despite a setback about 18 months ago.
He was referring to the VSS Enterprise, a Virgin Galactic Scaled Composites Model 339 SpaceShipTwo, which suffered an in-flight breakup and crashed in the Mojave Desert, California, US while performing a test flight on October 31, 2014. The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed and the pilot, Peter Siebold, was seriously injured.
“But (after that accident) people don’t want us to give up I think. If we can assure space travel is safe and affordable, [there’s a lot of potential there],” he said.
But that crisis proved the best companies should be run by those who genuinely care about their people. “We go out of our way to make sure our people like to work with us,” adding that his companies are able to provide their employees the tools to do their job properly, “making our customers smile.”
And while Branson works hard, he said he plays hard too. By playing hard, it includes a couple of adventures, among them, like flying from Canada to Japan. He laughed, “everything that could go wrong (on that trip) went wrong,” to the audience’s laugher as well.
Branson responded to a gamut of questions, providing background as to how he grew his brand, in unconventional ways at that (he and co-founder Nik Powell named their first venture, a record shop, Virgin, because they were “virgins” in the business).
He quipped, “with a name like that, you’d go a long way.”
Branson (who arrived in Manila around 4:30 am, headlined the forum at 2 pm, then flew to Australia by 7:30 pm) is tireless, and said that on his first visit to the Philippines, he was “hanging out with friends.”
“A lot has changed since [I’ve been] here,” he said.
Branson said "thousands and thousands" of entrepreneurs are needed as well to continue the Philippines's fast growth story.
But Branson said for the Philippines to truly shine, the rule of law must be observed and that local companies need to be open to more competition.
Relaxing foreign ownership rules of businesses in the country is something that President-elect Rodrigo Duterte said his administration would prioritize. Currently, The Constitution limits foreign ownership to 40% in industries and sectors such as telecommunications, transport and electricity public utilities; agriculture, fisheries and forestry; construction; advertising; private radio networks; and real estate.
“The country (Philippines) is dominated by 20 very big companies. It’s difficult for foreign companies to invest in many sectors here and I’m not necessarily sure if that’s in the interest of the corporations here,” Branson pointed out.
He added that too much protection would not get enough competition and consumers do not benefit at all. “A little bit more competition from overseas will be good. Let’s see if we can bring the ‘Virgin’ magic here.”
Branson added that in his 50 years as a businessman, he learned to never cross the line. "Businesses are in a position of putting it right. This is one area where businesses need to stand out," he stressed.
He added that they are trying to get business leaders worldwide to never ever be tempted to bribe public officials. “I think if every business leader does that, then public official will not ask for bribes,” Branson said.
Branson also touched on the issue of death penalty, which was raised when the topic on the fight against illegal drug use was cited, him calling it a “complete failure.”
He said death penalty is not a deterrent to solve crimes anyway. “In countries where you can’t 100% trust the courts, the last thing you should have is the death penalty,” Branson said.
He added that society should not risk executing innocent people and “I hope this new government will think twice about that,” referring to Duterte’s pronouncements of restoring death penalty for heinous crimes.
Instead of executing those convicted of grave crimes, Branson said they should instead be locked up with no chance of bail or parole.
Branson’s Virgin Group strongly oppose death penalty, even condemning the execution of eight individuals last year in Indonesia over drug-related crimes, on which, Filipino Mary Jane Veloso was reprieved at the last minute.
Members of the audience were inspired anew after Branson’s appearance (which forum lasted for an hour). Among them, dentist to celebrities Dr. Steve Mark Gan, who swears that he read all of Branson’s books. He also made copious notes from Branson’s shared nuggets of wisdom during the forum.
Gan said that the globally renowned entrepreneur’s (who ranks no. 286 on Forbes list of the world’s richest), overall message is to “follow your heart. And it’s never too late to go back to school. If you don’t succeed now, you can succeed later. I wish we could just have more time. It could have been more informative,” he told Entrepreneur.com.ph on the sidelines of the forum.
The Philippine Star columnist and entrepreneur Wilson Lee Flores said Branson’s gutsiness is the most inspiring trait of him. “He still has this pioneering spirit. We should get more of his guts to be able to start anything. Even if not all his businesses succeeded (Virgin Cola and Virgin Brides, the latter promoted while Branson dressed in a wedding gown), he kept on going,” he said.
He added that Branson saying that three to four months of running a business would give you three to four years in school is also gutsy, not to mention that he is a marketing genius.
Miss Universe 1999 1st runner-up and entrepreneur Miriam Quiambao said she likes what Branson said about “making sure to genuinely care for every person who works for you and with you. And that’s true because we all want to work in a harmonious environment.” She also liked Branson’s tips about being generous in praising your employees and listening to them as well.
Before concluding the forum and wearing the ANC jacket presented to him by ABS-CBN President and CEO Carlo Katigbak and the network’s head for news and current affairs division Ging Reyes, Branson announced that all ticket sales from the forum would go to Virgin Unite, his conglomerate’s corporate social responsibility arm.
Silver tickets were sold at P25,000 ($534.96); gold for P30,000 ($641.95); and platinum for P35,000 ($748.94).