Book Review: Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson

The ubiquitous billionaire is back with a well-timed manifesto

Screw Business as Usual
By Richard Branson
Penguin Portfolio
$26.95; 384 pages


Richard Branson has an enormous head, both anatomically—his dome is sizable—and figuratively: His ego arguably has no rival in contemporary capitalism. Shameless name-dropper though he is, stories he tells about other people often end with a story about Richard Branson. One gets the sense that his professional life has been an extended circus act designed to generate publicity for his Virgin empire and to keep from getting bored. To list only a few of Branson’s stunts, he has jumped off a hotel wearing a tuxedo, driven a tank through Times Square, kite-surfed with a nude woman on his back (in front of cameras, of course), and dressed as abride. He might be the richest clown on earth.

Branson would prefer that there were more Richard Bransons in the world. His latest book, Screw Business As Usual (the second Branson book in two years to include “screw” in the title), is an attempt to mold other capitalists to his image. That image, however, is not of the corporate globetrotter, the world-record breaker, or the ill-fated hot air balloon pilot. Those were the subjects of his 1999 autobiography, Losing My Virginity. Rather, Branson here presents himself as the benevolent billionaire. The book is the result, in part, of an epiphany Branson had seven years ago, inspired by his pal Peter Gabriel’s song about anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.

“In the lyrics of Biko were the words ‘business as usual,’ a phrase that came to have deeper resonance for me,” Branson writes. “The means by which that money has been made have not been as important as the end result—the damage that might be inflicted on humanity and the environment.”

As prose, Screw Business As Usual is clunky and repetitive. Even as a publicity ploy, it’s inelegant: Each chapter ends with a list of Virgin’s philanthropic Web addresses, Twitter handles, and Facebook pages. But as a manifesto from a compassionate one-percenter, Branson’s book is a well-timed call for a more ethical way of doing business.

If we take him at his printed word—and his past success with Virgin demands that we at least trust his business instincts—Branson’s endorsement of socially responsible business practices could catch the attention of even the most profit-driven corporate titans.

Screw Business As Usual is in many ways a coming-of-age tale. Branson describes the book as “the story of my seven-year journey towards realizing that, while business has been a great vehicle for growth in the world, neither Virgin nor many other businesses have been doing anywhere near enough to stop the downward spiral we all find ourselves in.”

After a few drinks, we’re told, Branson came up with a name for his new way of thinking: “Capitalism 24902.” One could have expected a man with such a keen sense of branding to come up with a catchier slogan, or at least one not so reminiscent of Jason Priestley. But true to narcissistic form, Branson decreed that existing buzzwords for progressive capitalism—Capitalism 2.0, philanthrocapitalism—simply weren’t equal to his planetary ambition. “Every single business person has the responsibility for taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village, all 24,902 circumferential miles of it.”

Branson spends much of the book fumbling over exactly what Capitalism 24902 entails, and often gets in the way of his own explanation. Among other obstacles, he trips over the countless names he drops. Kate Winslet appears on the very first page, having been a visitor to his Necker Island home when it burned down during Hurricane Irene last year. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is referenced roughly a dozen times. Queen Elizabeth here. The Dalai Lama there. Mick Jagger. Phil Collins. Even more regrettably, Branson toots his own company’s do-gooding horn to the point of smugness, which makes the book smack of self-promotion when it has more to offer than that.

Screw Business As Usual inspires when its author casts himself as corporate arbiter, spotlighting companies that already abide by his Capitalism 24902 principles., he notes, gives away 1 percent of its time, product, and equity (yes, equity) to charity. GroFin, started by Shell, incubates small businesses in Africa. Kimberly-Clark, the company that makes Kleenex and Huggies, is throwing money at developing tubeless toilet paper rolls. And General Electric’s $5 billion spent on developing clean-tech products in its ecomagination business ended up generating more than $70 billion in revenue.

Somewhat surprisingly, Branson singles out Wal-Mart Stores, “unquestionably the five thousand pound gorilla in the room,” as a model of corporate benevolence and rhymes off some compelling evidence. Indeed, the company has pledged to cut 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain, equaling the removal of about 3.8 million cars from the road. Wal-Mart is also sourcing food from small farmers, and though Branson doesn’t point it out, the company has become the largest global seller of energy-efficient light bulbs.

Wal-Mart wouldn’t be doing all this if it weren’t beneficial to Wal-Mart; pushing sustainability efforts, for example, can help lower operating expenses. The gist of Branson’s new worldview, as he puts it, is that “doing good really is good for business.” With this book, Branson hopes to ditch the wedding dress and rebrand himself as an éminence grise of ethical capitalism. Unlike some Branson stunts, this one may benefit people other than him.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.