My Biggest Mistake

The chief executive of Virgin Radio graduated from Washington University with a master's in business and a degree in communications and within a year was Pepsi's youngest ever marketing manager. He joined Virgin in 1986.

MY BIG MISTAKE was an inability to compromise. I had been asked in October 1990 to take over as managing director of one of Virgin's post-production television companies. It was, financially, in a very bad state - and my job was to turn it round.

I worked like a maniac, every waking hour, seven days a week - which left little time for anything else. As a result my nine-year marriage fell to pieces.

However, by April the company was starting to make serious money, and, after working 120 days on the trot, I decided I deserved a holiday. With my personal life in tatters I had come to the conclusion that there had to be a better balance between work and play. I flew to Los Angeles, determined that - no matter what - I was going to do absolutely nothing connected with work.

I had only been there for two days when the first fax arrived. It was from an old friend, John Revell, who had worked for Virgin in the past. Being an extreme1y good researcher, he had tracked me down to tell me Virgin was looking for a chief executive for its new radio station and he thought I ought to apply.

I had been working with my nose to the grindstone for so long, I hadn't even noticed that Virgin had won the franchise until I got his fax. In the event, I decided to ignore it. After all, I was on holiday.

When I didn't respond, he carried on faxing and left countless telephone messages. By this time he had already told them I was the man for the job; now it was down to me to get in touch.

I continued to ignore his messages all the while I was away, and felt very proud of myself for having stuck to my resolution about not getting involved with work. As soon as I got back to the UK, however, he was straight on the phone. Within a week, I had become enthusiastic enough to call Robert Devereux, the chairman of Virgin Communications. I said it sounded like an interesting job and I wouldn't mind doing it. His response was to say that, unfortunately, the new chief executive had been announced that morning. All he could do was give me a non-executive directorship, which he did, but I was so frustrated.

I felt that my experiment in trying to find a dividing line between work and play had been a complete failure, because as a result I had missed out on something that by then I really wanted to do.

As it turned out, in the nine months leading up to the launch, everything did not go according to plan - and by December 1991 I was asked to take over as chief executive after all.

In the meantime, I had certainly learned my lesson - of course it isn't healthy to work 120 days on the trot, but neither is it healthy to shut yourself off from everything that is going on elsewhere.

I'm not just talking about the balance between work and play, because nowhere has this lesson proved more useful than in our current campaign to lobby the Radio Authority and the government for an FM frequency.

When you're involved in negotiations, an ability to see the grey rather than just the black and white is invaluable to the process.

I used to view compromise as giving in against your principles, but as long as you achieve what you want in the long term, there is really nothing wrong with it at all.

(Photograph omitted)

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