Sir Richard Branson, like a merry pied piper, pedaled his way on a bicycle through gritty, urban Detroit on a gray summer day. With his shoulder-length, white locks flowing behind him, the 64-year-old eccentric entrepreneur wore a black t-shirt emblazoned with white letters reading “Detroit Hustles Harder.” Cycling through the edgy Motor City might not be for the faint of heart, but Branson, who founded Virgin Atlantic Airways, has always been the lionhearted sort.
He’s crossed both the Atlantic and the Pacific hanging in gondolas under hot air balloons, in far less safe or comfortable conditions than the passengers aboard his airline. He even chose to sit in economy comfort seats on his celebratory inaugural Virgin flight to Detroit. Detroit was a city known as the “Paris of the Midwest” until the riots in 1968 sent the city into a spiral of decay. This was three years before Branson would open a single record shop in London (Virgin Records). After this, its population fell from 1.8 million to 701,000.
When the iconic pod of five glass cylinder skyscrapers arose on Detroit’s riverfront in the mid-1970s, it was named the Renaissance Center; but the sobriquet, while optimistic, was premature. Hints of a renaissance didn’t become evident until Little Caesar’s Pizza founder Mike Ilitch, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, and Compuware creator Pete Karmanos began investing so heavily in the city they were able to change the political climate. The national publicity generated by the removal, and eventual jailing, of Detroit’s corrupt “Hip Hop Mayor” Kwame Kilpatrick was embarrassing, but not as much as the City considering auctioning off the priceless works and treasures of its Detroit Institute Arts in an attempt to literally turn the streetlights back on and fight off insolvency. (It took the “grand bargain” the largest civic managed Chapter 9 bankruptcy in US history to begin stabilizing Detroit in 2014.)
Photo Credit: Michael Patrick Shiels
Branson’s urban bike ride was guided by Detroit’s “Slow Roll” cycle tour company, a start-up movement designed to keep riders together and safe while exploring neighborhoods, art projects, community gardens, unique architecture and historic locations. Branson has founded more than 400 companies, and his bicycle featured the logo of “Shinola” watches, another Detroit start-up that has turned into a hip badge worn on the wrist for civic pride. In the course of existing, the billionaire Branson inevitably hears so many unsolicited business ideas every day that the phrase “Pitch Rich” was born.
But rather than looking over his shoulder and trying to spot trouble around corners while pedaling past stretches of abandoned mansions and graffiti-covered warehouses, Branson, like a conquering hero, was busy spotting those who saluted him from the sidewalks and beckoned him to their businesses.
“People were calling out to us to stop and come into every coffee house and eatery,” said Branson when he took the stage that evening during a swank Virgin Atlantic bash at The Fillmore in Detroit’s expanding Foxtown Theater District. It was evident that growing pains were interrupting glamour that night. Branson threw out the ceremonial first pitch earlier that evening at the Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball game across the street, but could not walk directly to The Fillmore from the bustling ballpark, due to ongoing construction of a light rail line which will link downtown with midtown and create an entire new corridor of commercialism.
Photo Credit: Michael Patrick Shiels
“Detroit has had some tough times but the city is on its way back up and everyone at Virgin is delighted to be part of the city’s future. The creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of Detroit and its people is something very close to my heart,” said Branson, who admitted his initial surprise (even though he owns the airline) that his Virgin Atlantic CEO Chad Kreeger had decided to begin offering daily service between Motown and London’s Heathrow Airport. “I initially figured the passengers would fly into Detroit and only use the hub airport to get to other places via Delta flights. But now that I have explored Detroit, I think Europeans would be smart to take in the city and see what it has to offer.”
The fact that Virgin Atlantic’s new Detroit route caught Branson off guard, should not be a surprise to those who know his management philosophy.
“My advice to entrepreneurs is that after you start your company, find someone else to run it as soon as you can,” said Branson, who met with area entrepreneurs like Gilbert, and aspiring entrepreneurs during his stay. James Cash, founder of another one of the phenomenally-successful new Michigan start-up companies, followed Branson’s advice and came to The Fillmore to toast him. Cash’s innovative Revel Cellars Inc. reinvented the way wine should be cellared by the most discerning of high-end collectors, through a groundbreaking design that upended the cellar industry--similar to the fashion in which Branson’s Virgin brand raised the service standards and creativity of the traditional airlines. (Branson loves tweaking British Airways.) Cash designed a Revel Cellar for Branson’s Natirar Luxury Resort Estate in Somerset County, New Jersey.
The Fillmore VIP bash in “Pure Michigan” was Pure Virgin, the airline’s name was in lights on the marquis; guests were escorted in on a red carpet by red-clad flight attendants whose British accents didn’t go unnoticed. Food stations offered bangers and mash and Asian noodle salad in mini Chinese food cartons. Guests grazed and lounged on white sofas throughout the theater.
Photo Credit: Virgin Atlantic
“Fun and flair” is what Kreeger said separates Virgin Atlantic from other air carriers. On the “inaugural” flight from LHR to DTW, cast members of “Motown the Musical,” appearing at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, performed en-route for the dignitaries, including Branson. As the media snapped photos from the tarmac, the slender, wooly, wild man emerged from the fuselage with a pretty flight attendant on each arm flanked by the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.
But there is more than show business to Virgin’s decision to add a Detroit-London non-stop, according to Kreeger. “It signals a confidence in the city – there are so many exciting developments taking place in Detroit and we see a huge opportunity to grow trans-Atlantic travel here. Detroit is an extremely important hub offering easy connectivity via Delta services to 400 destinations.”
Branson added, “I know Delta does well here because it is the only logo I see throughout the entire [Detroit Metropolitan] terminal.” According to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit Metropolitan Airport (which is not in the city limits) is the third largest international gateway in the United States. “Richard Branson coming to Detroit to announce Virgin Atlantic’s non-stop flight demonstrates our city’s position as a leader in the international market,” said Duggan, who, himself, had flown in from the Clinton Global Foundation event in Denver. While in Colorado, former President Bill Clinton described Duggan as “the most powerful municipal official in the country.”
Before leaving, Branson couldn’t help but levy some entrepreneurial advice to the mayor. “You need big, bold strokes. There are thousands of displaced Syrian refugees who need homes. Welcome them here. Bring them here,” he said. The immediate question, though, is can “Pied Piper Branson” fly enough Brits on their first trip to Detroit to make the route profitable? The region is counting on it.