Sir Richard Branson is famous for his hot-air ballooning exploits, speedboat-crossing records and world record hang-gliding flights, but to entrepreneurs around the world, he's lionized for taking on conglomerates and shaking up the business status quo.
With typical Branson showmanship -- the head table was escorted in by miniskirted cheerleaders -- he kept a crowd of close to 800 of Winnipeg's business community hanging on every charming word in the main ballroom at the Fairmont hotel on Friday.
Members of the city's business elite, such as Hartley Richardson, Arthur Mauro and U of M president David Barnard (and many more young women than you'd typically see at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon) seemed delighted to spend the midday session listening to the charming Branson kibitzing with Ace Burpee, the morning man at newly branded Virgin Radio in Winnipeg.
Among Branson's words of wisdom:
- On risk-taking, he said "You fail if you don't try things."
- On what are the business features that remain timeless in a marketplace that seems to be disrupted and changing all the time, he said, "There's no point in starting a business unless it's going to make a difference in people's lives."
- On why he maintains such a high profile while so many other successful business people keep their heads down and avoid the press, he told reporters, "When we launched Virgin Atlantic with one second-hand 747 taking on companies with hundreds of big planes, I got some advice from someone else who tried to do this before me and went bankrupt, Freddie Laker. He told me you're not going to be able to afford to advertise, so get out there, make a fool of yourself, make sure you get on the front pages. So I ended up jumping into balloons, jumping in boats, climbing mountains -- anything I could do to get Virgin on the map. Now that it is on the map, I hope we can give back a bit."
According to the Sunday Times newspaper, Branson is worth $5.4 billion, with his Virgin Group empire stretching across more than 200 companies in more than 30 countries including Virgin Atlantic airlines and Virgin Mobile, which operates around the world.
Ostensibly, the Winnipeg event was staged to raise money for RAY (Resource Assistance for Youth) a Winnipeg social service agency that works with youth in distress.
And it was a roaring success, with Winnipeg's business elite digging into their pockets to raise more than $300,000 for RAY.
The charming billionaire with the famously big smile and golden locks served up the renegade entrepreneur goods and the Winnipeg audience lapped it up.
He snipped off the Armani tie of one of his Canadian radio executives in a demonstration against the confining symbolism of the necktie, spoke out on legalizing marijuana and fulfilled the wishes of a couple of smitten women in the audience with a couple of kisses.
But many were there to soak up some of the business brilliance that has seen him take on some the largest industrial conglomerates and win.
Ashok Dilawri, owner of the Dilawri Group of automobile dealerships, said, "He is an entrepreneur extraordinaire. I just wanted to see him and hear what he had to say."