A former colleague of Richard Branson has cast light on what it was like to work with the billionaire Virgin Group founder.
Huntley Ritter, a former Hollywood actor turned advertising executive, worked with Branson for five years at Virgin Group, where he was president of banded entertainment at Virgin Produced from 2011 to 2016.
He said Branson was never afraid to admit when he didn’t know something.
“Branson was always very focused and intense, but very gracious. I never saw anything ruthless from him,” Ritter recalled in an interview with Business Insider.
“He told a great story once. We were doing a campaign for Virgin America. We were down on his island, and we were having lunch in the middle of the day. It was really cool,” Ritter continued.
“He was telling me a story about his early days with Virgin Atlantic. He said that he had all these MBA grads. I don’t know if they were from Harvard, or the London School of Economics, but they were a really well-accomplished, well-credentialed team.
“They were giving this whole presentation to him, and they were talking about the gross margin,” Ritter said. “Branson said ‘I don’t know what that means. What’s the gross margin?’ The MBA grads all kind of paused, and looked at each other.
“Branson was like, ‘You don’t have to look at each other. Just tell me what it is.’ They kind of explained, and he was like, ‘Oh, so it means such and such.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ So he understood [gross margin], but he maybe didn’t know the proper label for it that [an MBA student] learns at business school.”
Ritter, now the CEO of interactive tech and advertising firm USeek, said Branson’s honesty about his shortcomings made him stand out as a leader.
“What was so amazing about him — and he’s very open about it; he struggled with dyslexia — is that he’s very good at saying ‘hey guys, I wasn’t always the smartest. I had lots of struggles and challenges, and look what I was able to build. So don’t let people marginalise you or put you down.’
“He just has this intrinsic, natural quality about him that you can’t learn at business school.”
Ritter says Branson wasn’t afraid to enter spaces he didn’t know much about
Ritter added that Branson’s comfortableness with not knowing everything helped him enter industries he had little prior knowledge of.
“Where most people say, ‘Everyone’s got their hand in that cookie jar,’ he’s not scared to literally just nudge his way in there and say: ‘I’m here. We’re going to try this.’ And he always does this in big industries.
“For example, aviation. That was a great example. He started with one airplane at Virgin Atlantic, and then it went to Virgin Australia and Virgin America.
In Ritter’s view, this attention to detail ultimately allowed Branson to compete with much larger incumbents like Delta Airlines.
“You did come out of it and say ‘yeah, I want that experience.’ An experience is worth something, and what Branson did really well was to focus on the customer; listen to the customer,” Ritter said of flying with Virgin.
“He went into all these industries, and all these legacy companies could have done the same thing. What’s funny is that most of them have since copied or tried to copy elements of [Virgin].”