President, Virgin Galactic
The word ‘innovation’ both inspires and defines companies. For the enterprising and entrepreneurial Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin brand, the reality of turning space travel into a genuine commercial commodity has now become the latest in a long line of innovative moves, a thing that some have said is just the next natural progression for the brand.
However, in an exclusive interview with executive business channel MeetTheBoss.tv, Virgin Galactic’s President Will Whitehorn explains just why innovation goes so much deeper than just being “the next step” in business.
“In the 1980s when I first started working in the world of brand development, business development, and the marketing of companies as opposed to marketing of individual products, the understanding of branding in Britain was pretty poor,” explains Whitehorn.
“So my reckoning came when looking at the Virgin brand that Richard had built. He’d managed to get this reputation for quality, value, money, innovation, and a sense of entrepreneurialism [….] and his approach when you’re building a brand was that you’ve got to think about what you’re building and how you build its reputation and, of course, by the time I’d really got going at Virgin, the reputation of Virgin Atlantic was already growing rapidly.”
History in the making
Two key points in Virgin’s history largely define Whitehorn’s career alongside Richard Branson. Often described as both a “lynchpin” to the business and “Richard Branson’s no.2” (something he is quick to dispute – “Richard doesn't have a right hand man, he's probably got about five or six right hand men and women and he's got about seven or eight left-hand men and women too”), Whitehorn’s presence at Virgin has always been felt.
The first of these issues came during British Airways’s (BA) dirty tricks campaign back in 1993, which saw BA attempting to monopolise the airline industry with BA employees poaching Virgin customers and tampering with confidential company files. Remembering that time, Whitehorn explains ‘the ludicrousness of the way they acted’. “They were involved in this operation to produce these reports on Virgin that were going to be circulated to city editors, it was called ‘Operation Barbara’ and they named it after Barbara Cartland, who wrote novels about virgins getting f*****.”
Whitehorn was instrumental to the fight back against BA at this time. “The sale of the Virgin record company was a psychological moment because that basically said, ‘We're here to stay. We're not going to let you do this.’ And I think that's when morale inside BA began to collapse, especially when they'd been paying for these reports to be done.”
The second issue was the Pendolino train crash in 2007, which saw Whitehorn and Virgin Train’s then-CEO Tony Collins joining Sir Richard Branson both at the bedsides of the injured passengers and at the crash site of the accident.
“There were a number of people saying we just shouldn’t be doing this, but I just didn’t agree. I said, ‘This is our moral duty,’ and Sir Richard agreed entirely. He said, ‘The thing is you've got to think what if it were my kids on that train, whether they'd been hurt or not, I'd have expected to see the boss of the company standing up to talk about it. I wouldn't expect there to be nobody available.’
“So when we went in front of the media, Sir Richard said, ‘If I was responsible for this, I will take full responsibility. I believe it seems to be some sort of points failure. That's what we know so far […] but really our thoughts today are with those who've been hurt […] I just would like to thank the driver, without whom more people would have been killed, for doing what he did so bravely and I'd also like to thank the train because we have designed something that's done what it should have done in these circumstances’.”
The final frontier?
Innovation isn’t just at the heart of the Virgin brand, it’s the thing that sparks inspiration, drives product and forges careers. “What we’re doing with Virgin Galactic is using interesting, modern aviation technologies, which we have taken into the space arena. Stephen Murphy, the CEO of Virgin Group, said as we took this project on, ‘I think you've got a really good market for this. I believe you will sell the tickets.’ And he's been proved right about that.
“The thing that worries him and other colleagues was could we get the technology to work? And of course it's the trust in the Virgin name, which leads people to be prepared to put down the deposits, which has really led people to stick with us. I mean, we've had an incredibly loyal team internally who have stuck with this project, who are doing this not just because we want to do it and because we believe it's really important for the industry.”
To see the interview in full, please go to http://www.meettheboss.tv