Efforts to improve existing conditions have already paid dividends in the first 12 months, with on-time performance improving from 78 percent to 90 percent and 16 percent more people using the trains, resulting in a £25 million profit, compared with a loss of £20 million the year before.
Nevertheless, Mr. Branson admits that “this is the biggest risk we’ve taken with the brand in Britain.” Disgruntled passengers who never bothered to complain when the British Rail name was on the trains feel justified in airing their frustrations now that Virgin graces the engines. Though Virgin has failed at other business investments and escaped with its reputation intact, sustained problems with the railroad could tarnish the brand.
But Mr. Branson, ever the optimist, foresees a positive outcome. “You can’t be afraid to take risks,” he says. “I believe that if my balloon goes down in 10 years’ time, the success we’ve made with Virgin trains will be a greater part of my legacy than Virgin Atlantic. There may be short-term damage, but in the long run, it was the right thing to do.”
Though the Virgin brand is so inextricably tied to his name, Mr. Branson insists that the brand will live on even if one of his risky adventures does him in prematurely. “It will be a different kind of brand, probably more mature than it’s been before and slightly less risque,” he says. “But there is no reason commercially that it shouldn’t go on in strength.”
The more crucial lesson, he says, is retaining the values he has instilled even as the company grows larger and larger. “You’ve got to treat people as human beings — even more so as the company gets bigger,” Mr. Branson says. “The moment I start to think ‘I’ve made lots of money, I’m comfortable, I don’t need to bother with these things anymore,’ that’s when Virgin will be at real risk.”
Richard Branson did not become a favorite of the business media solely on the basis of his publicity stunts; he is also eminently quotable in sound bites. Here are some gems from our interview with him: