It must have been in the early nineties that I saw him in person for the first time: Richard Branson. As a young journalist working for Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, I was sent to London to cover an airline seminar during which plans for liberalisation of the European airline industry were to be discussed. As Branson was getting ready to give a speech at the seminar, I was sort of expecting a cocky man with a big mouth. Instead, Richard Branson was very humble, almost shy, and a bit awkward even; wearing an old corduroy jacket, he could easily have been a colleague of mine at the editorial office of the newspaper. From that time on, I followed this man with special interest. From that time on, I followed this man with special interest.
In those days KLM and British Airways were "secretly" negotiating a merger. Every little rumour about this subject was big news in The Netherlands and so were the challenges British Airways was facing at home. And Richard Branson was clearly one of the biggest challenges BA was up against at that time. With his company Virgin Atlantic he was fast becoming one of the greatest competitors of long time undisputed number 1 airline in the UK – British Airways.
As Branson was getting ready to give a speech at the seminar, I was sort of expecting a cocky man with a big mouth. Instead, Richard Branson was very humble, almost shy, and a bit awkward even; wearing an old corduroy jacket, he could easily have been a colleague of mine at the editorial office of the newspaper.
But then he started talking. And just about every word he said was worth listening to. His analysis of the airline industry was razor-sharp and made the other presidents of the more established airline companies look outdated.
From that time on, I followed this man with special interest. Years later, when I was working as chief of the business desk at the same Dutch daily, I 'met' him again: several times a year he was able to attract our attention with a PR stunt. And every stunt was usually accompanied with a fantastic picture, often featuring a number of beautiful ladies surrounding Branson. He has an unbelievable talent of making headlines around the world.
Earlier this year, he turned 63. And as The Economist put it nicely: "Slowing down seems to be the last thing on Sir Richard Branson’s mind." This is probably one of the reasons he will be travelling to Amsterdam this weekend to chair the jury for the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. He will meet five young sustainable entrepreneurs who will possibly want to be like Branson one day. People who want to change the world for the better with brilliant ideas. He will judge them and give them advise. And, some twenty years after I saw him talking at the airline seminar, I will finally get the opportunity to interview him on stage as I will host the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge Finale, on Monday 16 September.
I hope to skip the inevitable questions he always gets in interviews about the secrets of his success. He has written all about that in his biography. I am more interested to hear where this activist for positive change sees the biggest challenges for the new generation of entrepreneurs. Fighting the establishment, like he did in his younger days, doesn't seem to be the success formula for a better world anno 2013. Branson's focus nowadays seems to be more and more on only promoting those plans that have a big potential impact as well as a good chance of being achieved. The winner he and his jury members will select on Monday will therefore, I think, be selected according to those two criteria. And one thing is certain: Richard Branson himself will make a huge impact on all of us.
Max Christern, journalist and host of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge 2013