New Delhi: Virgin Atlantic founder and chairman Richard Branson speaks exclusively to NDTV's Shweta Rajpal Kohli on being a flamboyant entrepreneur, his success story in aviation and the crisis plaguing Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher Airlines.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
NDTV: A philanthropist, a stuntman and clearly one of the world's most flamboyant and successful entrepreneurs. It's such a pleasure to have with us Sir Richard Branson. Thanks so much for being with us on NDTV.
Richard Branson: Lovely to see you.
NDTV: You once famously said that the quickest way to become a millionaire is to start as a billionaire and invest in an airline. Do you actually believe in that?
Richard Branson: It has happened to a number of people and the skill is to try to do it differently and try to be successful. At Virgin fortunately, we've had 30 years of success in the airline business but it doesn't always happen.
NDTV: Alright, it doesn't always happen and it's clearly not happening as far as the Indian skies are concerned. You're stepping up your operations here in India at a time when the domestic industry is going through very, very turbulent times. Kingfisher Airlines owned by Vijay Mallya, who many describe as India's Richard Branson, has had his license suspended. They are struggling to stay afloat. What would you say to a struggling aviation business?
Richard Branson: Well, I think it's worth remembering that it wasn't a long time back when there was only one state-owned airline dominating India, and at that time airfares were high...it was impossible for most people to travel. Since they've opened it up, there have been lots of low-fare carriers which have been fantastic for the consumer, lots of people being able to fly because you couldn't afford to fly before. From a consumer point of view fantastic, but you are going to have casualties and it looks like, at the moment, Kingfisher's one of those casualties. You know, he is struggling to keep the airline afloat and all I can say is, we wish him all the best and we wish his staff all the best in the struggle to keep the airline flying.
NDTV: It is indeed a struggle and you've put it across very well and as an entrepreneur, is it always such a tough choice to make? Because on one hand, there are many who believe that the business is looking unviable...the airline has been bleeding and there is no point just carrying on, he should fold up. On the other hand, there are of course jobs at stake and the fact that he did put in a lot, invested his own money and a lot of hard work and effort into building an airline, building the brand. Is it really a tough choice at this point?
Richard Branson: I think it's a very tough choice. Most people would have walked away six months ago and all the jobs would have been lost. I've witnessed all the criticism he's had over the last six months. I'm slightly surprised by that because at least he is fighting to try to keep the airline going and as I said, I just hope for the sake of everybody who works there that he is successful and wish him and all the staff, all the best.
NDTV: You mentioned criticism. Do you think part of the criticism is because he is a flamboyant entrepreneur just like you and he's being unfairly targeted because of that?
Richard Branson: I think flamboyance is dangerous. If you do show your wealth to the world too much, I think that's dangerous for any business person and I think you've got to get that balance right and particularly in somewhere like India, where there are a lot poor people. I think, may be, when he looks back on his life, he might regret perhaps being so overtly flamboyant in the sort of showing off one's wealth...I think that's what people have to avoid.
NDTV: But what would you say to those who say he fashions himself on Richard Branson?
Richard Branson: Well, he's an entrepreneur. What I like to think is that any wealth I create, I try and put it into not-for-profit ventures and anyway, I wouldn't say we are absolutely identical. That's all I'd like to say.
NDTV: Absolutely, but you mentioned an important point that in a country like India, where we are seeing this is a company where people's jobs are at stake, we've had an unfortunate incident where an employee's wife, a Kingfisher employee's wife committing suicide and on the other hand, we have an entrepreneur who has that kind of a lifestyle. Do you think the two somewhere jar and the criticism comes simply because people expect the entrepreneur to be more responsible?
Richard Branson: I suspect that is the situation although I think that he cannot be criticised for doing his best. He used his own money to set up what was a very good airline and took a big risk and lost a lot of money. I don't think anybody can criticise him for that. His lifestyle, people can criticise somebody for that. I think, generally, people who have been successful and entrepreneurs ought to be careful and get the balance right in their lifestyle. You don't need the biggest cars or the biggest this or the biggest that. I think people gain respect from using their money to construct, to make people's lives better.
NDTV: You've said that quality brands don't go bankrupt. Now if you really look at this as a classic example, do you think that running an aviation business is also getting the assumptions right about the aviation industry? The fact that he perhaps assumed that there was a market for that premium airline was perhaps a wrong assumption for a market like India?
Richard Branson: It's an interesting point. Virgin has been in the business for 30 years and we're in a quality long-haul airline and almost every year, we've been profitable. Based on that and some other experiences I've had, I've said its very rare for a quality brand to go bankrupt, quality hotels, quality airlines, quality anything. But they were a quality airline and I'm not sure where it went wrong. It just could be that there was an overcapacity of supply which resulted in bankruptcy or it could just be that there were not many who could afford a quality airline in India. He may just have been ahead of his time.
NDTV: He was ahead of his time. But what about running an aviation business efficiently because it is clearly one of the toughest business to be in?
Richard Branson: It's extremely tough and again, I don't know if he had the best managers running it or not. He obviously wasn't running it himself and whether he had problems with good management...I honestly don't know but it is critical to get good managers.
NDTV: When we look at the Indian aviation space, it's true that several airlines continue to bleed but your presence is here of course to resume your Mumbai-London operations. But your presence also coming weeks after the Indian government announced FDI in aviation is obviously raising the one big question - are we going to see you investing in an Indian airline?
Richard Branson: We're happy to sit down and talk with one or two Indian airlines and see if there's anything that Virgin can get to the table. We are not currently talking to anybody but now that the rules have opened to say that we could own up to 49%, we will be happy to talk. Whether we could bring anything to the table, I don't know but as Virgin always happy to be good.
NDTV: Would you be brave enough to invest in a bleeding airline at this point?
Richard Branson: We wouldn't want to do anything foolish.
NDTV: So would be foolish to invest in a bleeding airline?
Richard Branson: I don't know. All I'm saying is, we would be happy to look at situations if people want us to look at situations and see if we would be helpful. We certainly wouldn't want to put everything at risk, everything we've built over the years and it would have to be a sensible arrangement.
NDTV: Alright, part of that could also be starting afresh, not investing in an existing carrier but just starting a new start-up...is that something that you're considering?
Richard Branson: We're not considering it at the moment. You've recently had a start-up in India started by people who used to work with us who are doing well.
NDTV: You're talking about IndiGo?
Richard Branson: Yes, and I take my hats off to them for their success so far.
NDTV: It is absolutely successful the way IndiGo has managed to be profitable when most other Indian carriers clearly aren't. The fact that Indian government has opened up Foreign Direct Investment, is allowing FDI in aviation...at this point in time, many believe is a bit too late, you're someone who had evinced interest much earlier saying that yes, you are interested in picking up stake in an Indian airline much earlier. Do you think the government delayed the opening of the sector a little too much?
Richard Branson: I think governments delay opening all sectors too long when they try to protect their own sectors but actually to the detriment of their own sectors. And I think actually, what all governments worldwide should do is not have any restrictions, not say 49%, but if someone wants to invest in your country, let them invest 100%. That will create more jobs...that will create more competition and more wealth for the country and for all the people who live in the country. Protectionism is not good news.
NDTV: What do you say to the critics of foreign direct investment? You're talking about allowing 100% but there has been so much opposition to foreign direct investment in India by those who believe that foreign investors will come and take up Indian jobs and will actually be detrimental for the Indian industry?
Richard Branson: Foreign investors will not take up Indian jobs, they'll create Indians jobs. When an Indian came to Britain and bought Range Rover and Land Rover, they transformed that company and all the jobs that have been created there are British jobs in the British country or most of them. They brought a few good Indians to help Britain manage themselves. But 99% of the jobs will be local jobs and it'll be very, very good for the people in India. People are often frightened of these things but in reality, when countries open up completely, there's investment in that country and that's good for the country.
NDTV: And that would be your advice to the Indian government, to continue to open up, to continue to allow more foreign investment?
Richard Branson: Absolutely, I mean why, why proclude...I mean, if you go back to the 1990s and 80s in England...you know, the Japanese came and they were investing enormous amounts of money in our country and some people said should we allow this? After about 20 years of all that investment, they stopped investing because they had problems back at home but at least Great Britain benefitted from those billions of dollars of investment and job creation in the UK and if you don't allow it, all that happens is those countries go to other countries, those companies go to other companies, it just means you lose out.
NDTV: How's the world viewing India right now?
Richard Branson: I think generally very positively...I mean, I think, you know you've had a slight hiccup in growth but, we would love to have the growth that you've got, in Great Britain and I think that the world generally views India very positively and it's great to be flying to Delhi and Mumbai now and hopefully we can start flying to other cities in India in the years to come.
NDTV: That brings me to the question, why now? Why have you decided to resume your flights now? Why this attention to the Indian market when there are other foreign carriers who actually seem to be pulling out of this market right now?
Richard Branson: Well, we've managed to get good slots in Heathrow which means we can feed people from Mumbai on through to America which we couldn't do before. We've also got very fuel-efficient planes, brand new A 330s, and I think we built a good reputation in India. The Virgin brand is well known, the Delhi service has been very, very profitable and very successful, so we think we're ready for Mumbai.
NDTV: Alright and you're looking at further expansion as well, other areas of the Indian market that may interest or excite you?
Richard Branson: Yeah, I think there are a number of other cities and places...I mean, Goa is a place that the younger members of my family love to go.
NDTV: The party place...
Richard Branson: The party place... and then you got some other business markets which I think, we will fly to in time.
NDTV: Besides aviation? Other businesses?
Richard Branson: I'm sure, in time, we will build other businesses in India...we'll see how things go.
NDTV: What about the Railways because I heard you mention that's potential area of investment for you?
Richard Branson: I think that if India decides to privatise their railways or bring in private partners, it's something we'd love to help. I mean in Britain, we took over a dilapidated part of Britain's rail network about 15 years ago and we transformed it, and it's now one of the best in the world and I think we've got a lot of experience. So if you wanted high-speed trains in India, just give me a ring and we'll be happy to send a team to have a look!
NDTV: Okay, we don't see that happening in a hurry, but make a pitch to the Indian government to privatise the Indian railways.
Richard Branson: I'm doing that now! I hope they're watching! But I mean, privatisation you know, sometimes is something which is politically difficult to get through. But there's no question that it benefits the public and just to give you an example on the one line that we travel on in Britain, when we took it over, there were eight million travellers, now there's 34 million, 15 years later. So you know we managed to bring the prices down, speed up the trains, make them much more pleasant to travel on and nobody has to travel on the roof, so it's pretty good.
NDTV: Alright, nobody has to travel on the roof, that's interesting. Let's talk about how the world's changing especially post the financial crisis. The developed world is obviously trying to emerge out of the crisis. You mentioned how the Indian growth rate looks very attractive to you even though we seem to be criticizing the slowdown in our growth. The UK is just celebrating its 1% growth level. Do you see a shift really in power...the fact that the developing world, the emerging economies are now becoming increasingly the markets to watch out for?
Richard Branson: Absolutely, I think there's a big shift in power and we have to be nice to Indians. India used to be one of the most powerful countries in the world and it soon will be again and it's up to companies like Virgin to embrace that and come and be part of it...and that's what we plan to do.
NDTV: Alright, let's also now talk about some of your other businesses. How much of your time and attention goes to the aviation business right now? Which are the businesses of yours which are exciting you the most?
Richard Branson: Most of my time is spent on not-for-profit ventures, so setting up organizations that will tackle disease or tackle conflicts or tackle global warming and I get enormous satisfaction from working on that side...the funnest project that we've got on is our spaceship company.
NDTV: Right and that was my question. When do we see space tourism taking off?
Richard Branson: Virgin Galactic will be the first to offer trips into space. I'm still hopeful it'll be next year. It may slip into the following year but it's going to be absolutely magnificent and our challenge is to try to get the price of becoming an astronaut down to a level where hundreds of thousands of people in India one day will be able to go to space. I think we'll pull that off in my lifetime but in the immediate future, we'll start sending people who can afford it...into space, and then they'll be the pioneers which will enable us to get the price down and down and down.
NDTV: And you see that becoming a reality...you're saying in your lifetime...it still sounds like a dream that we'll be taking flights to space?
Richard Branson: It will be within 18 months from today. It will be a reality. Then over the next decade or so, we've got to then take those spaceships and try to bring the cost of getting them into space down...and so many, many, many people watching this programme will be able to go to space one day.
NDTV: And is it clearly one of your most exciting, challenging projects that you've taken up?
Richard Branson: It's the most ridiculously exciting, I mean, you know...I still pinch myself when I think I'll be taking my kids up to space on my own spaceship! So it can't be bad and we're also building a submarine to try to explore the bottom of the ocean.
NDTV: We read about that as well.
Richard Branson: So we're actually doing one extreme to the other.
NDTV: And isn't that all about being an entrepreneur? The fact that you can continue to innovate, continue to try out new businesses, take on new challenges.
Richard Branson: Yeah, that's what an entrepreneur is. An entrepreneur does things that can make lives better for other people and gets out there and says, 'let's do it', and gets on and does it. I suppose I am a serial entrepreneur.
NDTV: As a serial entrepreneur, your advice to young entrepreneurs who are looking at setting up new businesses, especially in a tough business environment like the current one?
Richard Branson: I'm just saying, just do it and just try it and the best way of learning about running a business is to give it a go. You know everybody will tell you why you shouldn't do it but just try it, just give it a go and if you fall flat on your face, pick yourself up and try it again, but don't bother if you are not going to do something special, something which you can really be proud of.
NDTV: Lessons that you learn in a downturn, in a recessionary environment, things that you seemed to have learnt in the last three to four years in terms of doing a business, growing a business in a tough business environment?
Richard Branson: In a tough business environment, you have got to be better than the rest but work harder...you have got to unite all your staff around you, really believe in the battle that you are going through and then hopefully, you'll come out the other end with a forehead. You need to come out with imaginative ideas. You know if it's really tough, send your staff down, say we have got a really tough time, would any of you like to go on unpaid leave for three or four months? Would some of you be willing to work part time for three or four months? These are the kind of things you have to do in difficult times but hopefully you won't go through that.
NDTV: So what keeps Sir Richard Branson going?
Richard Branson: Oh! I just love life. I have the most fascinating life than anybody I know, so every day is different, every day is meeting new people. You know tomorrow in Egypt with these 12 incredible elders from all over the world and we'll be sitting at their feet and listening to them trying to look at the crisis in Africa and North Africa and Middle East and seeing whether the elders can help. Day after that, I'll be flying to Moscow and may be meeting President Putin.
NDTV: Right, doing some bit of lobbying there with the government.....
Richard Branson: Doing some lobbying with the government and see if we can fly there and hopefully doing some good things as well.
NDTV: Continuing to do the stunts that you did here today in Marine Drive a short while ago, jumping on top of Mumbai cabs...how difficult is it to continue being a stuntman because there's also the benchmark that you have set for yourself, that expectation that we are going to see something new each time we see Sir Richard Branson?
Richard Branson: I think it's important to make people smile and if I launch a new business, like I just launched a new airline into Mumbai, let's do something which makes people smile and anyway, I enjoyed it, it's good fun and I'll keep doing it until my children say, 'enough of that Dad, we'll do it for you'.
NDTV: That was my next question. Succession planning - have you thought about it, are your children getting more and more involved in the business, when are you going to say that's it?
Richard Branson: I am enjoying myself too much, I am trying to suck them in a little bit and help get down a bit and they are two great kids. They are bright, intelligent, fun, good-looking, young...we'll certainly get them involved in the future.
NDTV: They are already getting involved in the business.
Richard Branson: Yeah, my son is making films and my daughter is helping her Dad out there.
NDTV: You mentioned the elders and I'd like to get a sense of how important is it for an entrepreneur to give back to society and any message for Indian industrialists, Indian promoters on philanthropy...as we know it as India is often criticized for not doing enough?
Richard Branson: I think that nobody is going to be remembered for having how much money they've got in the bank when they are going to die and I think it's extremely important that all entrepreneurs, all businessmen use their entrepreneurial skills to get out and help governments help social workers tackle the problems of this world...and I think the employees who work for those companies should be that much proud of the company if the company becomes a force for good. So I would urge all business leaders worldwide to turn their companies into companies that are making a difference in this world.
NDTV: Thank you for your time and we are waiting to hear the next big business opportunity from Virgin. Many, many thanks for talking to us.
Richard Branson: Pleasure to see you.