The ballad of an optimist

A near-capacity crowd gathered at Retails BIG Show to hear “A Fireside Chat with Sir Richard Branson,” moderated by Kip Tindell, immediate past chairman of NRF and co-founder and chairman of The Container Store. Branson, whose Virgin Group controls over 400 companies, offered some thoughts for retailers as they struggle to keep their footing in today’s environment.

Check out the official recap for photos, videos, articles, presentations and more from Retail’s BIG Show 2017 .

Check out the official recap for photos, videos, articles, presentations and more from Retail’s BIG Show 2017 .

“If you were a U.S. retailer,” said Tindell as an opening question, “with 20 or 30 years in business and maybe 300 locations, and you were faced with declining foot traffic, what would you do?”

Branson, who describes himself accurately as a “serial entrepreneur,” noted that one of his earlier and very successful ventures, the record, CD and electronics outlet Virgin Megastores, was made obsolete by the invention of the iPod and the transition to distributing music in the form of downloaded digital files.

“When we saw the handwriting on the wall for Virgin Megastores,” he said, “we decided, well, we don’t have to keep being a retailer. We looked at what products were selling well in our stores. It was the early days of mobile phones, so we decided [to] start a mobile phone company. It was the early days of video games doing well, so we thought, let’s get out and start a video games company.

“And actually, the businesses we started by sort of using the stores to see what products were selling became much, much bigger than our retail stores ever could have been. I know it’s easy to glibly say this, but I think people who own retail stores should not think of themselves as always being retailers. They need to be entrepreneurial, and they need to spin off businesses on the back of their retail that can make them money to help the retail stores to survive.”

“It’s bizarre that you don’t have more women running retail companies.”

Sir Richard Branson

Push for equality

Turning to management opportunities for women, Tindell said, “I think about 24 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. What do you think it takes to get better representation in the upper ranks for women? I mean, 24 out of 500 is just not good enough.”

“I feel quite strongly that you need to do something that is against most women’s wishes,” said Branson, “which is what they do in Scandinavia. The government needs to insist that companies have 40 percent or 50 percent women on their boards, and it needs to be legally forced through. If it’s not legally forced through — if it’s just left up to us men — I think another two or three generations will go by before we have something like parity. At Virgin, we find that our women are just as good as men, particularly at something like retailing. Women understand their customers, I think, better than men — I think they’re just generally better at it. It’s bizarre that you don’t have more women running retail companies.”

He then asked for a show of hands from the audience of women who agreed with him that equal representation on corporate boards should be legally forced through. Noting that very few women raised their hands, he said, “But in Scandinavia, where it is forced through, women now, five years on, feel very strongly that it’s worked — and so do men.”

Asked how he manages an enterprise with so many companies, Branson said, “I learned very early to delegate. Too many people building businesses feel that they have to do everything themselves.”

At the same time, however, he stressed the need to pay attention to detail. “Spot problems and fix them quickly,” he said. “That’s often why small restaurants, where the owner is present, are better than big ones.” The trick, he said, is getting a big company to run like a small one.

A Fireside Chat With Sir Richard Branson at Retail's BIG Show 2017


This story originally appeared in print as part of STORES Convention Daily on January 17, 2017. View the digital edition and see more highlights from Retail’s BIG Show 2017.