Steve Ridgway and Richard Branson first came across each other through a passion for fast boats rather than fast jets.
“I’ve known Richard since 1984, when I put the transatlantic boat project together which became the launch mechanism for Virgin Atlantic in terms of publicity,” says Ridgway.
Dubbed Virgin Challenger, this was Branson’s successful bid (at the second attempt) to take the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing. At the time Ridgway worked for the firm that created Branson’s speedboat and was the team’s pilot.
The two shipmates gelled, and Ridgway was taken on as a consultant for Branson’s new airline before being offered a permanent role in 1989. Ridgway, who came from a marketing and sales background, was appointed Virgin Atlantic managing director in 1998 and chief executive in 2001, shortly after 9/11.
“I guess we have worked very well together because I share a lot of Richard’s instincts around running a business that is all about delighting customers. That was the revolution that Virgin started, because back in 1984 many airlines were arms of government. They were run by their technical departments and the customer wasn’t really front of mind,” says Ridgway. “Many airlines have copied that now, but we have always remained the carrier that tries to do things differently.”
Ridgway says that Branson’s management style is to trust his teams to run his businesses: “He remains very engaged and does two or three key things for us – he’s that big persona, he’s incredibly well connected politically and a fantastic launch spokesman.”