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Ex-Virgins create their own succes stories


If the success of a business could be measured in terms of the new and successful businesses it spawns from its stable of staff Virgin Money would rank pretty well.

In just five years of its infancy, Virgin Direct, the precursor to Virgin Money, helped launch the careers and future business plans of a whole field of firms now making their mark.

The herd ranges from online wine sales, one of whose staff has a sideline selling smoked meat, to user experience website design and, of course, financial services.

Rowan Gormley, one of the founding members of the Virgin Direct team went on to help set up first Virgin Wines and then his own business, Naked Wines.

It is getting close to turning over £10m and has some 70 staff.

Online Media Group was set up by chief executive Richard Syme and Rob Starkey, both ex-Virgins.

It now turns over more than £20m and has ex-Virgins Nic Redfern and Giles Hunt as chief financial officer and IT director respectively.

Foolproof was set up by ex-Virgins Tom Wood and Peter Ballard.

There are more. What triggered the phenomena?

Its heritage, which may have helped fuel its incubator-like tendency, was in fact partially another successful Norfolk incubator - Norwich Union.

A partnership with Norwich Union helped launch Virgin Direct in 1995: in fact the majority of the founding managers of Virgin Direct were brought in from Norwich Union.

Foolproof's Tom Wood described the Norwich Union founders as like astronauts, parachuted in be the pioneers of Virgin Direct.

Tony Wood was one of those astronauts, alongside Jayne-Anne Gadhia, also from Norwich Union and now chief executive of Virgin Money, and Rowan Gormley.

Mr Wood ended up as group brand and corporate affairs director before leaving to found X-Factor Communications.

“It has been really remarkable how many marketing, communications, digital and PR businesses people, who, rather than leaving and going on to another corporate, went on to set up their own businesses,” he said.

“Virgin was a very entrepreneurial environment and an incredibly good learning and test ground. It gave you the confidence that you could do your own thing.”

That liberal attitude actually meant that moving to another corporate was just not an option.

“It is significant that for so many of us the next logical step was taking control and breaking out a bit,” said Mr Wood. “I think a lot of it is, compared to other places I have worked and talking to others, the degree of independence you got and freedom, not just of action but also of thinking.

“That was incredibly liberating. Then when you move on it is inconceivable of going to another corporate. It would feel like a step back.”

Martin Campbell, another ex-Norwich Union man, was also one of the founding management helped build and launch Virgin Direct.

He left Virgin in 2001 to set up strategic business advice and communications firm Beacon Strategic.

Gordon Maw, was also ex-Norwich Union. He was head hunted to join Virgin Direct later in its life in 1998 as communications manager.

By that time the firm had rapidly grown and launched new products including the Virgin One account.

It the time he was there it went from a company that ran all its own products at its Whiting Road offices, with Virgin Direct, Virgin One and dot com venture Virginmoney.com, to a restructured and also global firm, which had shed the One Account and ran as a merged entity - Virgin Money.

He left in 2005, at the end of another restructuring, having been offered a post in charge of half of the marketing team as well as the press office or redundancy.

He took redundancy and took on Virgin Money South Africa and Virgin Money UK as clients in his new firm Maw Communications.

Clients now include Gocompare.com, who also work with ex-Virgins Foolproof and OMG.

“There was always a feeling that when people did leave Virgin, they always went on to do great things,” he said.

“It certainly helped me believe that I had knowledge that people would find very valuable. For me Virgin was a fantastic experience - the culture there was very 'can do', which meant a lot of fairly young people were given incredible opportunities to prove their worth - something I had never experienced at Norwich Union.

“A lot of the time the attitude was 'that's a great idea, go and do it', which created a bunch of around 100 or so really empowered people who got used to making things happen.

“Those sorts of people were then always likely to go on and do other things.”

There was a further exodus in 2008 when the One Account, which had been launched as Virgin One under Virgin Direct, had split off to become its own entity.

Not everyone left at the same time and different people had different reasons for leaving, from one of the restructures to simple boredom and wanting a new challenge.

That was the case with Foolproof, now employing nearly 40 staff at Queen Street and a London office and working internationally, helped others aspire to run their own firms.

Other ex-Virgins now operating in the city include Moco Training and Development, set up by Vanessa Boon and Stephen Ferrey.

Leo Murphey, who led training at Virgin Money, founded professional services firm Modus Agendi in 2000.

Jason Borthwick, who left to found Burnham Deepdale Backpackers, is now setting up an eco-backpackers hostel in Norwich.

Its part of the city's heritage and has been a boost to the area, says Mr Wood, of X-Factor.

“It is great for the area and it does show it has been a long standing phenomena of Norwich and financial services, from Money Facts to Marsh, Virgin Money and the One Account.

“This is a sub phenomena, a learning experience.”

The last word has to go to Sir Richard Branson.

“It doesn't surprise me to see so many ex-Virgin Money employees start up their own ventures,” he said. “We look to recruit people with bags of energy, creativity and of course entrepreneurial spirit and this will inevitably mean talented people will look to strike out on their own.

“I think it's great that Virgin Money has played a part in so many success stories and given talented people the foundation and confidence to launch and grow their own businesses.”

Eastern Daily Press - The Business
04/08/2010