Steve Ridgway’s childhood as a “West Country Boy” on his father’s farm is a far cry from the heights he achieved later in life as the CEO of Virgin Atlantic. Bernardo Moya uncovers the story of his rise to success.
Right from the start, Steve Ridgway is clear about one thing. His childhood on his father’s farm in Devon taught him vital skills and attitudes for later life. Improvising around problems and responding to the dynamic nature of his environment was a great education.
His childhood was “privileged” and “happy”, he recalls. Indeed, his relationship with his family was so good that years on he runs a business with his younger brother.
As for school-life, no clues to his future, there. “I was never really that strong on the science and technical side and yet my life has been very much around inventing things and wanting to build things and so, I guess I was intuitively quite good at it.” As for his general attitude to school, he is diffident: “Like everybody at that age, I probably should have worked harder.”
Yet there are flashes of his future outside of school. An early taste of the activity that would one day bring him into contact with the UK’s most flamboyant entrepreneur, Richard Branson, came during the summer holidays. “We had a very active sailing club and I used to spend as much time as I could sailing on the estuary in Salcombe, so that was pretty fantastic.”
Steve graduated from university with a degree in economics, did a graduate sales management programme, and worked for three years for one of the great names in British business Jimmy – later Sir James – Goldsmith.
Understanding sales was vital, he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in business, selling, or what you’re doing, I think having those skills is quite a science… They’ve certainly been with me in most of my subsequent career.”
After realising he was no longer advancing in the company, Steve went back to college and for three years taught economics, politics and history, a great environment for learning a whole new set of skills.
“You have to stand up in front of people, be articulate, be able to motivate… make them be interested in what you’re talking about and learning… You have to be very fast on your feet and the way you think.”
Business soon called to him again, however, and he joined Toleman’s, the UK’s largest car delivery company. His flamboyant boss, Ted Toleman, enlisted Steve in his new Formula 1 team. Notably, they introduced Ayrton Senna to Formula One. Later, Toleman bought Cougar Marine, a company renowned for making fast boats and Steve landed a new job:
“I went off to open up and run their factory in North Miami Beach, which was sort of powerboat alley. I was out there for nearly four years with the beginning of my young family,” he recalls. “I was the general manager of the plant… running the whole thing and responsible for the design and development of the products,” he adds. “Every year we were winning the World Offshore Boat Championship, which is like the Formula One of power boating.”
To publicise the innovative hull design of one of their boats, someone suggested the idea of breaking the trans-Atlantic speed record.
Serendipity then stepped in. Richard Branson had just started Virgin Atlantic Airlines and needed cost-effective advertising for his business. Sponsoring the Blue Riband attempt was the answer.
“The boat was named Virgin Atlantic Challenger and we set off after much humming and hawing in 1985. We got within 130 miles of the Scilly Isles and then sank, got fished out the drink by a helicopter and winched off and taken back to the Scilly Isles where we said ‘Dammit we’ll do it again!'”
The following winter they built another boat and this time got across, breaking the record for the Atlantic crossing. “We had a pretty difficult crossing and there were all sorts of problems with the fuel. We were stopped in the water for 12 hours, but we did break the record!” he smiles.
The effect of the race was legendary. Richard Branson became a household name and the publicity for Virgin Atlantic was massive. On another level, Steve admits his view of risk was changed the day he decided “to go and do something that was quite edgy and quite dangerous… racing this boat across the Atlantic day and night and charging 55 knots in the middle of the Atlantic, not being able to see debris, bits of iceberg, whatever it might be,” he recalls.
On his return, Steve set-up a company with Chay Blyth to do round-the-world yacht racing. After Branson’s example, a rush of people wanted to go and pit themselves against the elements. It was a very successful business and they worked together for several years.
By then, several of the Virgin Atlantic Challenger team were working for Virgin Atlantic. One day, Richard invited Steve to join him at the airline. He freelanced for a few years and formally joined in 1989.
“It just started growing and growing,” he recalls. “We had equally tough periods when things like 9/11 came along and the Gulf wars. It was a fantastic thing to take the company from two aircraft to where it is today with forty aircraft… The company’s a £3 billion company now.”
So why did Virgin succeed where other companies like Laker and Dan Air had failed?
“With force of personality and by being very aggressive and very challenging in our marketing, in the way we looked after customers, we were able to prevail,” he answers, explaining that Virgin built a reputation for looking after both its business and leisure travellers, which older companies regarded as “annoying”.
“From the beginning… we were going to make it a marketing business and a brand business and that’s where I had the empathy with Richard and Richard had the empathy with me.”
His childhood learnings were definitely transferable skills: “On the farm you have to be very innovative and intuitive about reacting to things and I think those two things came together in driving the agenda at Virgin Atlantic.” It suited Branson well, who loved being different.
So what specifically accounts for the “Virgin magic?”
“It’s about building a business for consumers and addressing consumers’ needs,” Steve says. Of course, Branson’s personality is part of the mix, Steve adds. He enjoys the idea of David taking on Goliath, as happened with BA, telecoms companies and mobile phone companies. As for the railways, “It’s been about getting away from that old culture of British Rail and creating a brand that is different and that is largely around people.”
As for making Virgin Atlantic work, Steve divides his role into two parts.
“You’re creating a promise that you’re going out to the market with your advertising, your brand, you’re making sure it’s distributed through whatever the selling channels are… You’re making that promise about where you fly, how you’re going to look after people and how much you were going to charge them. So that’s the selling and marketing and brand side of the business.
“On the other side you have a massive operational department which delivers everything. It finds pilots and trains them; cabin crew, airport staff, engineers. Then you make sure you have a fleet of aircraft suitably fitted out with the right cabins and configurations for leisure passengers, for business passengers, whatever it is and you put that whole package together. It is a massive matrix of complexity, but essentially it’s around a marketing and selling machine that is making promises and then another part of the business that is delivering those promises. And I think if you deliver those promises and you deliver them well, that’s how you get your reputation and you get a virtuous circle because word of mouth is the most powerful vehicle.”
Once you’re there, Steve adds, it’s about reinventing yourself and your business.
That’s what Steve is doing again, now. Earlier this year, after steering Virgin Atlantic to its current massive success, Steve decided to find a new project. Interestingly, his roots may be calling him back down to Earth, quite literally. So what does the future hold in store?
“I don’t exactly know, but I have got tons of energy… I would like to use some of the learnings and some of the wisdom I have to, you know, do some advisory roles or some non-exec roles…”
Then, as he talks, a light comes into his eye as he adds: “My farming roots are coming back to me again. I remember my dad always saying ‘It’s very nice owning a little chunk of England, even if you don’t own it for very long and maybe you’re renting it, but you do, you know, it’s your little chunk, so I can feel that a bit calling, so maybe go and become a farmer.'”
His laughter says that he may not be entirely serious. But you can be sure that whatever he does in the future, it’s going to be interesting.
Stephen Ridgway At A Glance
- Grew up on a farm near Salcombe
- Schooled in South Devon
- Economics BSc degree, Oxford Brookes University.
- Sales manager Cavenham Foods
- Business Development Manager at Toleman Group
- 1981-5 worked for Cougar Marine and moved to Miami
- 1985-6 Chief Pilot on Virgin Atlantic Challenger
- 1989 joined Virgin Atlantic
- 1990 became Managing Director of Virgin Freeway
- 1994 board director Virgin Atlantic
- 1998 Managing Director of Virgin Atlantic
- 2001 Chief Executive of Virgin Atlantic
- 2013 retires as CEO of Virgin Atlantic
- 2013 looking for new challenges