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The type of success that suits you
Q: I will be taking my first business trip next month, to visit potential suppliers in China. Do you have any advice on what to expect and how to conduct myself? I’m 22 years old. Should I wear a suit and grow out my beard so that they take me more seriously?
Simon Stanfield, London
Simon, I’m glad to hear that you are planning ahead, but I wouldn’t stop shaving just yet!
You’re going to be under some stress as you negotiate for your business’s needs in unfamiliar surroundings; your goal as you prepare should be to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you suddenly feel less sure of yourself, whether it’s because you’re under- or overdressed, or because you don’t know what the local business etiquette requires.
But it is funny that you’re asking me, of all people, for an opinion on formal dress. In Virgin’s early days, the staff used to joke, “The day we see Richard wear a suit to a meeting with the bank manager, we’ll know we are in serious trouble!”
Since Virgin started out in the music business, working with artists like The Sex Pistols, Boy George, The Rolling Stones, Genesis and others, I was never expected to wear the pinstripe suits, bowler hats and rolled umbrellas typical of the stuffy British business world. To this day I don’t own many suits.
By the time we launched Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984, where the business dress code was more formal, I was set in my ways. I took the attitude that what they saw was what they got. Back then I favoured corduroys and baggy sweaters, and I found that it didn’t make any difference to my ability to do deals. The Virgin Atlantic executive team never once persuaded me to wear anything more formal than a jacket, and even then, the occasion had to be pretty fancy for that to happen.