The Virgin Group is one of the UK's largest private companies, with an annual turnover estimated at £3bn per annum by 2000. Virgin's highest-profile business was Virgin Atlantic, which had developed to be a major force in the international airline business. However, the group spanned over 200 businesses from financial services through to railways; from entertainment mega stores and soft drinks to cosmetics and condoms. Its name was instantly recognizable. Research showed that the Virgin name was associated with words such as 'fun', 'innovative', 'daring' and 'successful'. The personal image and personality of the founder, Richard Branson, were high profile; in British advertisements for Apple Computers, together with Einstein and Gandhi, he was featured as a 'shaper of the 20th century'.
Origins and Ownership
Virgin was founded in 1970 as a mail order record business and developed as a private company in music publishing and retailing. In 1986 the company was floated on the stock exchange with a turnover of £250 million. However, Branson became tired of the public listing obligations. Compliance with the rules governing public limited companies and reporting to shareholders were expensive and time-consuming, and he resented making presentations in the City to people whom, he believed, did not understand the business. The pressure to create short-term profit, especially as the share price began to fall, was the final straw: Branson decided to take the business back into private ownership and the shares were bought back at the original offer price, which valued the company at £240 million.
Virgin had grown fast, becoming profitable and entering and claiming a significant share of new markets without the traditional trappings of the typical multinational. There was little sense of management hierarchy and there seemed to be a minimum of corporate bureaucracy. There was no 'group' as such; financial results were not consolidated either for external examination or, so Virgin claimed, for internal use. Its financial operations were managed from Geneva. Each business or group of businesses ran its own affairs but they were tied together through a degree of shared ownership and shared values. Some argued that Virgin's ownership structure enabled it to take long-term views, free from investors' fixation with short-term returns. Indeed, Branson argued that, as he expanded, he would rather sacrifice short-term profits for long-term growth and the capital value of the various businesses. Others argued that financing purely through equity slowed the group's ability to expand. Still others suggested that the complex web of businesses, with ownership in offshore trusts in the Channel Islands and the British Virgin Islands, did little to support Branson's image of honesty and openness.
The structure of Virgin Group was so opaque that the true financial position of Virgin Group was unclear. Due to its status as a private company, the complex group structure, and unavailability of consolidated accounts, it was difficult to arrive at accurate figures for the Group's collective turnover and profit. Companies within the group did not even share a common accounting year-end.
The Group has been described as a 'keiretsu' organization - a structure of loosely linked autonomous units run by self-managed teams that use a family brand name. Branson's philosophy was that if a business got to a certain size, he would spin off a new business from the existing one. Branson has argued that, as Virgin almost wholly comprised private companies, the running of the Group must be fundamentally different from that of a public limited company, which must keep shareholders, stakeholders and analysts happy, and must pay attention to short-term goals of high taxable profits and healthy dividends. The advantage of a private conglomerate was that the owners can ignore short-term objectives and concentrate on long-term profits, reinvesting for this purpose.
Historically, the Virgin Group had been controlled mainly by Branson and his trusted lieutenants, many of whom had stayed with him for more than twenty years. The approach to management was one that decentralized decision making, with an emphasis on autonomous business-level decision making and responsibility for their own development.
In 2000 the head office consisted of about 30 people. Senior staff had often had successful careers in large, multinational corporations. With businesses scattered across a wide range of industries and markets, the approach was hands-off, and until he was needed to finalize big deals or to settle strategy, Branson ruled with a loose rein by delegating to managers and giving them leeway to use their initiative.
However, when it came to marketing and promotion, Branson would take a more involved role. And when it came to the financing of the group and its deals, Branson's operating style was expressed in his autobiography: 'In the early 1970s I spent my time juggling different banks and suppliers and creditors in order to play one off against the other and stay solvent. I am now juggling bigger deals instead of the banks. It is only a matter of scale.'
Whilst the diversity of Virgin's business interests has been questioned, Branson has insisted that their core values and approach have remained the same. The name Virgin was chosen to represent the idea of the company being a virgin in every business they enter. However, before entering a new market, it was thoroughly researched to decide whether Virgin could offer something truly different: the aim being to extend the brand name at a low cost into selected areas where its reputation could be used to shake up a relatively static market. Virgin would only put its name to a project if it met four out of five criteria: it must be innovative, challenge authority, offer value for money by being better than the competitors, be good quality, and the market must be growing.
Branson's method of adding value to businesses revolved around four main elements. The Virgin brand was the single most important asset of the company. Based on a set of attributes and values rather than a market sector, it was about being the consumer's champion. But this was underpinned by their public relations and marketing skills; Virgin's understanding of the opportunities presented by 'institutionalized' markets; and their experience with greenfield start-ups. Virgin saw an 'institutionalized' market as one dominated by few competitors, not giving good value to customers because they had become either inefficient or preoccupied with each other; and Virgin did well when it identified complacency in the marketplace and offered more for less. Virgin had taken on one established industry after another, from British Airways to Coca-Cola and railways, in an effort to shake up 'fat and complacent business sectors'.
The Virgin brand made it possible to overcome barriers to entry in various industries and sectors. Branson and his business development team reviewed about 50 business proposals a week, with about four new projects under discussion at any one time. Good prospects would be those that addressed institutionalized markets, fitted the Virgin brand, could respond to the Virgin method of treatment, offered an enticing reward-to-risk ratio, and could be represented by a capable management team.
Some have described the Virgin Group as a branded venture capital house, with the use of partners providing flexibility and limiting risk. Each business was 'ring-fenced', so that lenders to one company had no rights over the assets of another, even if that company -went bankrupt. Virgin's expansion into new markets had been through a series of joint ventures whereby Virgin provided the brand and its partner provided the majority of capital. For example, Virgin's stake in Virgin Direct required an initial outlay of only £15m, whilst its partner, AMP, ploughed £450m into the joint venture. Virgin Group's move into clothing and cosmetics required an initial outlay of only £1,000, whilst its equal partner, Victory Corporation, invested £20m. With Virgin Mobile, Virgin built a business in the wireless industry by forming partnerships with existing operators to sell mobile services under the Virgin brand name. The carriers' competences lay in network management, not branding. Virgin set out to differentiate itself by offering innovative services such as no line rentals, no monthly fees and cheaper prepaid offerings. Although it did not operate its own network, Virgin won an award for the best wireless operator in the UK.
Branson has sought out people with innovative ideas who are willing to start new businesses, want to be the best at whatever they do, and with a strong desire to beat the competition. Organizational participants must share certain values specific to the Group and everyone was expected to be familiar with the corporate culture. Within the business units, Branson adopted his own personal style of management, priding himself on actively involving employees and seeking their ideas on ways of further adding value to his customers. Employees were expected to internalize values and behave accordingly. This internalization of corporate values meant a greatly reduced need for external controls, but employees were still held accountable for their performance. Human resource management systems were in place to keep people committed by stock options, bonuses and profit sharing, and wherever possible, there was promotion from within.