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Virgin's Branson says business as usual needs change

Richard Branson -- swashbuckling billionaire entrepreneur, sportsman and activist -- is accustomed to speaking his mind. Ask the employees and customers of his Virgin group of more than 400 companies around the world.
/ Source: Reuters

Richard Branson -- swashbuckling billionaire entrepreneur, sportsman and activist -- is accustomed to speaking his mind. Ask the employees and customers of his Virgin group of more than 400 companies around the world.

From records to airlines, mobile phones to fuels, stem cells to "space tourism," Branson has been known for taking risks, following his vision, and following through.

So it's no surprise that his new book of advice for budding billionaire entrepreneurs is aptly titled: "Screw Business As Usual."

Branson writes that reckless pursuit of short-term gain is blinding executives to the greater long-term profits that await them if they would focus on treating their workers well, nurturing the environment and encouraging poor people.

"My message is a simple one: business as usual isn't working," Branson writes in the book, which calls for a fundamental change in the motives driving business. "In fact, it's 'business as usual' that's wrecking our planet."

Though divided up into chapters, the book is basically a string of anecdotes about entrepreneurs making money while doing good and large companies that transformed themselves by cutting down on waste and, in turn, becoming more profitable.

There's GroFin, an enterprise started by the Shell Foundation that lends to small businesses in Africa, where many people don't have collateral or a track record of paying debt.

Or Marks & Spencer, the large U.K. retailer, which now recycles 94 percent of the waste its stores generate and has reduced its carbon emissions by 13 percent since launching a major initiative in 2007, according to Branson.

The initiative, called "Plan A," helped the company make £70 million ($109 million) in 2010, Branson writes.

But "Screw Business As Usual" is very much a Tour de Branson. As opposed to a rigorous academic critique of business psychology, it is free-wheeling and enthusiastic, with exclamation points juicing many a page.

"A whole new world of activism and advertising!" he writes, referring to a company called txteagle that helps businesses connect with customers in emerging markets via text messaging.

Aside from founding the Virgin Group, which employs 50,000 people in 30 countries, Branson is also known for well-publicized feats of daring, such as crossing oceans in hot air balloons or, as detailed in this book, attempting to kite-surf the English Channel with his family. (They had to turn back after 10 miles due to bad weather).

The benefits of Being Like Richard are on display. The book is full of name-dropping from the jet-set club of billionaires, celebrities and politicians with whom Branson socializes.

"One of the most beautiful moments for me was when Peter Gabriel and I taught Archbishop Tutu how to swim," Branson recalls of a meeting at his retreat in the Caribbean to plan "The Elders," a sort of superhero group of elder statesmen and political leaders he has helped establish. "A world famous rock musician, a business man and a celebrated archbishop bobbing about in the pool together -- brilliant!"

Such passages reflect the passions and zest for living which have fed Branson's entrepreneurial drive to success, and so have a place in the narrative. They can distract from his attack on "business as usual," the bottom-line-only zeitgeist he seen since starting in business in the 1970s. But for some -- the lucky few? -- perhaps they may inspire.

"One of the more devastating theories of the 1970s was that no matter what it took to achieve it, the primary purpose of business was to maximize value for its shareholders" at the expense of employees and the environment, he says.

Branson instead champions a theory he dubs "Capitalism 24902": every businessperson - every single one - needs to be responsible for "taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village, all 24,902 circumferential miles of it," he writes.

"It is important for people in business to recognize that long-term shareholder value is more likely to be created by companies that value their employees, act as good environmental stewards, and think long-term in general," Branson writes.