Two Billionaires Face Off In Detroit, Offer Advice

By JC Reindl
Detroit Free Press.

It was a Branson — Gilbert showdown in Midtown Detroit.

And by the end of the afternoon, Sir Richard Branson was ahead in grand gestures while Dan Gilbert led in wisecracks.

The two self-made billionaires sat side-by-side Friday and offered personal advice on entrepreneurship, when to risk failure and how much time employees should get off work.

The big attraction was Sir Richard Branson, 64, the celebrity British executive and rock star of serial entrepreneurs.

Branson arrived in Michigan this week to inaugurate the new daily flight service between London and Detroit Metro Airport on his Virgin Atlantic airlines.

Related: Virgin Atlantic marks new Detroit-London service

Joining him on stage in the College of Creative Studies auditorium was local businessman Dan Gilbert, 53, the founder of Quicken Loans, major investor in Detroit real estate and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA team.

The fellow billionaires — both wearing jeans — led a panel discussion on business insights and a “Shark Tank”-style pitch event for an audience of more than 300 people. The event was organized by Branson’s Virgin Atlantic.

Branson, who has launched some 100 different companies despite having dyslexia (he in fact calls dyslexia his “greatest strength”), asserted that the best time to start a business is when one is young.

“The younger you start as a entrepreneur, the better,” he said. “Because the younger you are, you don’t have mortgages, you don’t have partners, you don’t have children, you’ve got nothing to lose. So you might as well stick your neck out and try to come up with ideas to make people’s lives better.”

Branson also described the “very thin line” between success and failure in the early stage of starting a business.

“I think for a lot of people in this room who start businesses, they’ll go on the wrong side of that dividing line, but in the process they will have had the best education that they could have had,” he said. “The important thing is to brush yourself down and start again and keep doing so until you succeed.”

Gilbert said that those who can’t face the prospect of failure are the ones who need to worry.

“If you have a hard time accepting failure, then you can’t really build a business or you can’t probably do anything that’s great. Failure is part of it.,” Gilbert said. “No creativity, no great things, have come out of riskless ventures.”

Branson drew a big audience applause when detailing his generous family leave and vacation policies.

Last year, his Virgin Management began offering employees unlimited vacation days. And just this week Virgin unveiled a new family leave policy that allows both men and women to take up to a full year of paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

“I think these sorts of things are important,” Branson said. “People don’t abuse it, they get their work done.”

Gilbert, for his part, did not come off as eager to import this European concept of limitless vacations and year-long leave for dads.

“Is there a kid limit on that, like if you have a kid every year?,” Gilbert, a father of five, chimed in. “I’d get five years off.”

He later added: “We have something just as good — it’s free popcorn and slush.”

Branson didn’t shy from critiquing conventions in the U.S. labor market. He received another big applause when declaring that “American companies definitely should have more holidays.”

“Three or four weeks holidays, or two weeks even,” he suggested. “Especially if you’ve got a family.”

The British visitor also bestowed some generosity on the audience. He gave free round-trip tickets to London for three Detroiters: 16-year-old Asha Stewart, a student at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, and Alex O’Dell and Kyle Hoff, co-founders of The Floyd Leg, a furniture company that took part in the day’s pitch event.

That was a hard act to follow for Gilbert, who owns casinos and highrises, but so far no airline. He did offer to buy some of the Detroit-made items from the companies being pitched, including a $2,400 handcrafted coffee table on the stage from Ali Sandifer Studio.

“There is nothing like young entrepreneurs creating businesses,” Gilbert said.

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