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LIVE FROM NRF: Sir Richard Branson Discusses the Power of Disruption


Grocers today are working in a more competitive environment than ever before. To survive and thrive, they’re having to transform the food retail model and approach everything – from merchandising and marketing to employee hiring, training and retention – from a new perspective.

In his opening State of the Industry address on Jan. 16 during the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2017 Retail’s Big Show, Matthew Shay, NRF president and CEO, stressed that retail needs disruption – that companies must shake up the status quo and usher in the new. Things such as simplified tax reform, and a focus not just on the “what of technology,” but also the “who of the workforce,” are critical for survival.

Arguably, these insights couldn’t have been communicated more succinctly than in a statement that opened the following keynote: “I'm a person who looks forward more than looks back.” These are the words of Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, shared in a video about his life as an entrepreneur, which played before he took to the stage for a keynote interview with Kip Tindell, chairman of both NRF and The Container Store.

In the interview, the man behind the multinational conglomerate – who’s also an investor, philanthropist and adventurer – noted that keeping a brand fresh requires every new venture to enhance the brand and not damage it. People don’t mind entrepreneurs trying and failing, as long as they don’t leave people in debt and keep their reputation intact.

Branson also encouraged brands to have a little fun and be “cheeky” in business. As an example, he pointed to an instance when promoting his airline company while competing against British Airways. When British Airways failed to erect the London Eye, which it had sponsored, he took advantage of the situation and flew a blimp over the Ferris wheel communicating that British Airways “can’t get it up.”

“Having a bit of fun is good,” he said. “Not taking yourself too seriously is important.”

And disruption’s role can go far beyond just helping to make a profit. Branson spoke of the importance of making retail employees feel proud of their jobs and contributions – that they have a greater purpose in life. And working to make the world a better place is one way he believes businesses can thrive. Branson pointed out that if every company in the world adopted a problem and used its entrepreneurial skills to overcome it, most of the world’s issues could be solved.

Branson’s point properly echoed one made earlier by Tindell: “We can improve the world by improving the world of business.”

Future Thinking in Failure

But Branson also suggested, clearly drawing from his own experience, that it’s OK for a venture to fail. He pointed to several of his that did so during his 50 years as an entrepreneur, including an entrance into the bridal industry.

“It’s a tough business,” he said of retail.

That failure can be turned into the disruption that makes the next venture successful. When Branson saw the writing on the wall for music retail – one of his more noteworthy ventures – he decided that he didn’t have to stay a music retailer just because he was one. He looked at the products that were selling well in his stores for inspiration for new businesses. It was the early days of mobile and video games, products he already sold, which led him to move into starting a mobile phone company and another in video games.

His message was clear: Companies that started using their own stores to see what products they were selling became much bigger than those retail stores could ever have been.

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