Lessons in Ethics from Richard Branson

Richard Branson’s autobiography “Losing My Virginity” is a candid portrayal of his life, business and passion for sports. It reflects his adventurous spirit, risk philosophy and appetite in business world and while breaking records for flying balloons. His entrepreneurial quest started at age fifteen and today he is one of the most known faces of the corporate world. Definitely a man who went from strength to strength to build a successful organization!

 from islandconnection.comTwo incidents narrated of his young age, show that he compromised his ethics and suffered because of it. I think we all are prone to make similar mistakes. His story teaches us some lessons.

1.       Evading Tax

When Richard Branson left school in 1967, his headmaster’s parting words were: “Congratulations  Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.”  He landed up in the prison before he became a millionaire.   

In the early days of Virgin Music in 1971 he made bogus trips to Dover pretending to sell records. He was running a scam to avoid paying customs and excise duty. His thought process was” rules are meant to be broken. He was playing a great game with the authorities and not to be taken seriously”. After his last trip, customs and excise officials raided his shops and warehouse. They identified the marked records for which taxes were evaded, though he had shifted the records between shops on receiving a friendly tip-off. The officials arrested him and he spent a night in a prison cell. He was released after his mother deposited bail money and he agreed to pay a hefty fine to the customs and excise department.   

During the night he spent in the prison cell he made a vow to himself – “I would never again do anything that would cause me to be imprisoned, or indeed do any kind of business deal by which I would ever have cause to be embarrassed.”

Some people still consider it being smart if they are able to escape various taxes levied by the government.  Attitude is that it is a good thing to do as long as one doesn’t get caught. The realization that it is unethical and foolish to break the law doesn’t dawn till one is punished or penalized for it.

2.       Paying Bribes

In 1974, Richard Branson’s first marriage with Kristen was falling apart. They went on a holiday to Cozumel of the coast of Mexico to patch things up. They decided to go for deep-sea fishing at Yucatán peninsula. There was a broadcast of bad weather and the fishermen were hesitant about sailing that day. The Branson’s and another couple lured the fishermen by offering to pay double their usual rate. The fishermen took the bait and they went out to the sea.

When the boat was in the middle of the sea, the weather turned stormy. The waves rose high and the boat was smashed. The Branson’s jumped the boat while the others remained on the boat. They swam for three hours in icy cold sea water before they reached the beach. They informed the rescue team on the beach about the others still on the boat. The rescue ferry went in search however returned shortly as the sea was too dangerous to conduct a search operation. The fishing boat and its passengers were never found.

After the incident, Richard Branson described his thoughts – “I had to learn to live with the question of whether the fishermen would have gone out to the sea if it hadn’t been for us. Two fishermen and two tourists had drowned, and a fishing boat was lost. I wondered if we and the other two tourists should have waved a handful of dollars in front of them.”

In our excitement and desire to get our own way, we often ignore the risks attached to a situation. Paying bribes to oil the wheels and receiving bribes to get things done blinds us to the risks. The lure of money is such that it gives a sense of invulnerability and invincibility. However, this thought process can cause serious damage to the individual concerned and unsuspecting others.

Richard Branson’s autobiography is a must read for risk managers. The ups and downs of his business, the risks which he took, his thought process and philosophy while taking such risks provide a rare insight of the mindset of a successful entrepreneur. Read it cover to cover, it gives more knowledge than a regular risk management book.