Branson has already whipped the delegates into a frenzy. He shook hands on the chartered GEC Express train from Euston. He attracted a swam of paparazzi at Lime Street Station. And he stopped traffic by the River Mersey. Now, he’s taking to the giant stage in the Liverpool BT building to riotous applause. It’s the moment everyone’s been waiting for – many of the people in the hall have paid £180 to hear this 15 minute address.
Alas, he starts with a plug: ‘I got the train here,’ he says. ‘It took just two hours from London.’ But MC Mike Southon, Liverpool ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’ smoothly steers him onto his life story. It’s the usual drill; Branson was no great shakes at school. Ended up selling advertising and then running a magazine. ‘Being an editor between 15 and 18, 19 years old was a wonderful – if different – education,’ he says.
The interview is rehearsed – as evidenced by pictures of the Rolling Stones and the first Virgin Records store appearing on cue. But there are some charming insights from the Great Man. ‘You used to be able to smoke a joint in Virgin Records and get your bootlegs,’ quipped Branson. ‘Other stores were just boring.’ And he even cracks a few jokes: ‘I used to name drop constantly. When I met Archbishop Tutu, he was the same. He said to me, ‘People are always accusing me of name-dropping. Why only last week the Queen said to me, ‘Arch, why are you always name-dropping?’’
But he has got some truly inspiring advice for entrepreneurs. The first nugget is on the subject of cashflow: ‘Entrepreneurs are always worrying about where to get the money to start a business,’ he says. ‘We never had any money.’
So what did Beardy do? ‘We had to come up with ways of getting the money up front for all the businesses. With the magazine, that meant selling advertising before we printed anything. With the record shops, we started a mail order company, flyering outside concert halls, then we’d go to other record shops and negotiate deals to actually get the stock and hope that we made a profit.
‘Cashflow is everything,’ he concludes. ‘But sometimes you have to imaginative to get it going.’
The second lesson from Branson: ‘The most important thing when building a business is the art of delegation. Get people to do your job. By the time I was 19/20 I already found people to run whatever business I’d built up which let me think about the next business. You have to be brave and step aside as often as you can.’
Not to say that his journey hasn’t been without its fair few challenges. In aviation, a tussle with British Airways nearly pulled Virgin Atlantic out of the sky completely. There’s a trace of bitterness in Branson voice when he recalls: ‘I had to sell Virgin Records because we had British Airways trying to put our airline out of business.’
‘They did everything they could to drive us out of business, but the public stuck with us. We ended up taking BA to court and getting the biggest settlement damages in history. We gave it to our staff at Christmas and called it the BA bonus.’
So the story had a happy ending. Well, of sorts. Virgin is still involved in a tug of war over competition laws at Heathrow Airport, but al least it’s a battle that Branson has a chance of winning. He wasn’t so lucky with Virgin Cola.
‘If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, some things are going to work, some not, ‘ he admits. ‘The difference between taking on Coca Cola and BA is that with Virgin Atlantic, we had a product that was much, much better. With the soft drink, it was much of a muchness.’
Branson reckons that the undoing of Virgin Cola came when a crack team was despatched to Blighty on a recce to find out how much market share his ‘little upstart’ had clawed away from Coca Cola. ‘The CEO went to Tesco and wrote out massive cheques to drive us out of business,’ says Branson. ‘And we didn’t have that extra edge to keep us in business.’
He is hoping for better luck with his new banking venture – Virgin recently succeeded in acquiring Northern Rock. Admittedly on its second try. ‘It’s the perfect time to go into banking,’ he says. ‘The banks have been discredited and we’ve got a brand that people trust. And we can do it with a little bit more panache.’
But you can tell that Branson real business passion is Virgin Galactic. ‘Hopefully early next year myself and my children will go up into space.,’ he says. ‘Deep space exploration. Hotels in space. We’ll be able to put satellites in space at a fraction of the cost. We know there’s a big future there.‘
Stirring stuff – but many of the audience who followed him up to Liverpool for the conference will be more than happy if Virgin Trains manages to get them home again on time...