Career profile: Stephen Attenborough, commercial director, Virgin Galactic

Link to: Career profile: Stephen Attenborough, commercial director, Virgin Galactic

Stephen Attenborough sweeps into the room with a flourish you’d swear involved a cape. A big, warm English accent, bare-toothed smile, and some politely-hidden jetlag is his greeting. We’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and interviewing a number of senior Virgin brand executives and this grandiosity-in-tandem-with humility is a unifying feature. They’re visionary doers. We’re meeting at The Premier Business Leadership Series, presented by SAS, in Singapore, where he is speaking. As commercial director for Virgin Galactic, the speaking circuit is rather an open oyster.

Attenborough wasn’t fated for the space industry. Before 2004, Attenborough had been with Gartmore Investment Management, a London-based investment management firm, for 15 years. Having stepped away for six months to honour a cooling-off period en route to another similar role, he received a phone call from a friend. A friend who was also friends with Sir Richard Branson. This friend had been instrumental in sourcing the technology Branson needed to launch Virgin Galactic. The friend explained that the brand needed someone to lay down a commercial framework, but, more importantly, go out and see if there was a market for a commercial space travel company and, if it existed, what did that market want? The friend said it would be something to do for two or three months during the ‘gardening leave’.

Taking the role, he went to ‘interview’ with Branson, who explained that he was signing up to a blatantly audacious project, that there really was sort of a good reason that only 500 people in 50 years had been to space, that there was a long way to go with safety, as killing one in 100 of the customers wasn’t an option. But Attenborough decided he’d hit 40, it wasn’t an opportunity likely to re-present itself and, “I think I’d quite like to do this before it’s too late.”

Needless to say, Attenborough, Virgin Galactic employee number one, never made it to the other financial firm. He now oversees ongoing sales, business development, marketing, PR, promotional and customer retention initiatives for the world’s first commercial space travel company.

I’ve got to ask, how did the financial firm take it when you explained the reason you weren’t coming to work for them?

They said, ‘Good on you.’ What can you say? Who would turn down an opportunity like that? I guess some people would turn down an opportunity like that, because there was certainly risk, particularly in those days, but it is a privilege, and it’s not often that many people get the opportunity to work on something which is quite as ground-breaking, and also quite as important.

And actually, the thing I like about this project more than anything is that it does matter. It is a very important industrial project. If we get this right, then there is a real potential to use space much better than we have done in the past and, already, we couldn’t really live as we do without it. But it still has a huge store of potential… I think it’s going to become increasingly vital that we can get there easily, we can get there rapidly, get there cheaply, get there environmentally efficiently, get there safely.

We have an opportunity to make this commercial space industry something that doesn’t just get hived off into government defence departments… Because we’re going for space tourism as our first market, it’s something that will be united by a real global corporation with a global customer base. One of the things that I’ve learned in this time, because I sat down and read the accounts of a lot of the government astronauts, is that it does change them for life. They don’t go up there expecting it: they’re almost always selected because they are very good at doing a technical job, and they’re not naturally emotional people. But most of them come back having had their perceptions widened, I guess, and changed for the better, and they get a real depth of understanding, or a different understanding, an expanded understanding, of the nature of our home and the responsibilities of the people that live there.

And I’ve met a lot of astronauts as well… They were all completely wowed by it, of course, seeing the earth from the blackness of space, and however many sunrises each day. And they said the first day, they were up against the windows and all of them were very excited looking down at Earth and each pointing out their country. And by the second day, they were all at the windows and they were pointing out the continents. And by the third day they were looking at the windows and they were just looking at the Earth. And I think that, if it applies to our customers, is going to be a great thing, because they are wealthy. They have a voice, they have influence and they come from all around the world.

We have, I think, 47 countries now represented in the initial customer list. So, for all of them to go back as mini-celebrities for a while and be able to talk to [media] as confirmed environmentalists or whatever it might be, would be interesting. Which is not why we’re setting the business up, but I do think there are some very interesting potential ‘spin-offs’ and that’s definitely one of them.

I’m not sure how many tickets you’ve sold, I’d love to know, but it’s quite a high price. It’s the Gladwellian idea: elite pricing always gives way to mass pricing. So, what price do you want to get down to?

Our starting price is $200,000, which was pretty ‘back of the envelope’ when we started, because we didn’t really know how long this project was going to take or how much it was going to cost. And, of course, you’re always going to be precisely wrong at that stage of a project, and it is always going to take longer and cost more. But anyway, $200,000 actually is a good price, as it happens. It’s a good starting price. It’s a realistic commercial price, and we have about 450 people that have paid that now. So, we have commitments of $90 million and we have deposits of nearly $60 million… And one of the things, again, Richard said at that [launch] press conference in September 2004, was this is about democratising space, and if we get it right, and we make money, we’ll encourage competition and economies of scale, and everything else, which will help us to bring prices down and make space increasingly affordable. That’s certainly part of our philosophy, as well as to make sure that we are commercially successful. So, we’re not going to bring prices down as a magnanimous gesture; it will have to be matched by profitability.

Nevertheless, I think we stand a very good chance of doing that in the not too distant future. It’s impossible to say how far they’re going to come down because, if you look at the commercial aviation industry, I think the price of a ticket from Sydney to London, or maybe a return, when Qantas first started doing that route, was about the same as a terraced house in Sydney… And that’s not that long ago. It was in the fifties they started that service. You had to stop four times; it was a long trek, but obviously much better than a boat.

…So, we know that the prices can come down beyond all expectation, but I think even knowing what we know today… we can see prices coming down to $50,000 anyway for this trip.

In what sort of time-frame?

I don’t know. Let’s say 10 years.

Forgive me if I pigeonhole you here, but you come from a financial background at an inauspicious moment in history for that industry. Can you tell me about that culture shock of coming out of the finance world and into one of the world’s great brands inventing a new industry?

I think I was in quite a nice part of the finance world, or maybe it’s just overblown or maybe got worse after I left. I think I enjoyed or liked what I was doing before, and I’ve always been at the sharp end.

I suppose it’s business management and customer management, particularly, as I’m comfortable being the ambassador and the representative of whatever it is that the company is doing. And I love that part of Virgin Galactic. So, my perfect day, in some ways, is coming to a city I haven’t been to for a long time and standing up and talking about Virgin Galactic at somebody else’s expense. I could do that all year long. But unfortunately, I have other things to do.

What are they? What’s a typical day for a Virgin commercial director?

There probably isn’t a typical day, but I’m ultimately responsible for the 450 customers we have now, and they’re bloody important to us. All of them have a right to a refund at any time. One of the things we’re very proud of, I suppose, is that nobody has exercised that, other than for reasons completely outside of their control – bad health issues or financial issues. We’ve never had somebody who has just said, ‘I’m fed up with this, I’m leaving, I don’t like it.’ That is my responsibility; it’s been a very important ongoing foundation of the business case. So, particularly when we went through the financial crisis, we sat there and thought, ‘We could lose all these customers because we haven’t delivered the product yet and they’re going to need the money.’ And we didn’t. We didn’t lose any. At the same time, Virgin was saying, ‘This project is getting quite expensive, it’s going on for quite a long time.’

All the companies in the group were facing very tough trading conditions, and could’ve done with getting some help with the funding, I suppose, just to de-risk it a little. So actually, my background in [finance] became very useful because I was part of that team that went out and raised money. We did a good job and we’re proud of that. So, there’s that side of things.

There’s the customer side… we’re not desperate to sell tickets at the moment, and I think we’re ahead of where we thought we would be at this stage. We’re probably keener on finding the right customers than any customers. So, that’s my responsibility as well, as is the PR and the marketing around that. [We’re] doing everything on a shoestring as far as that’s concerned, because our money is basically going to make sure that we have safe spaceships and a great operation.

We have a very powerful brand, actually, and that’s one of the other things that I’ve been responsible for and have developed. And we’re very careful what we do with it, because it’s working well for the Virgin Group, because it defines 21st century Virgin, but it’s also going to work very well for us in a limited number of partnerships, which would be revenue generating.

So, that’s our responsibility. As is making sure we have good documentary series and a reality TV show at some stage, and that we have insurance and we’re regulated properly. It’s a very broad role. And also business development comes under my remit, which is starting to think of how we use these vehicles – that were deliberately designed to have a very flexible open architecture – how we start to develop businesses outside space tourism. And, again, there is no massive rush on that, but we have signed up our first science research customers now. We may be looking at developing a small satellite launch vehicle at some stage… That could be a fabulous market, actually, because it’s the story of space the whole time. There are a lot of people that want to use space, but they can’t get there or, if they can, it’s too expensive, too unreliable and all the other things. And satellites are getting smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper, smarter and smarter, and the launch costs are still sky high. And the availability? You’ve got to book two or three years in advance. So, that would be exciting.

It’s a pretty broad role, I would say, and we have a small team, which I like… When it’s that small and it’s that important, you can’t really make mistakes with people. So, we’ve often taken on people that we know in some sense or have come recommended.

You do keep emphasising small. How small is the team?

The team in London is tiny; it’s like 12 people, who do all the PR, marketing, sales, customer retention. The company as a whole is about 115 people now I think. A lot of that growth has been in the last six to 12 months, so it’s transforming rapidly, because we’re in this period now of ramping up to commercial operation.

What is it about space? You must have lain awake at night trying to work it out?

There is this thing inside us, isn’t there, that has created the extraordinary beings that we are, and a lot of it is about wanting to push boundaries and explore, and to do things that haven’t been done before… Look at the customers, particularly. A lot of the early customers… were the baby boom generation, [who] have had an experience that really nobody since the beginning of time has had. They have lived a remarkably successful life; they’ve had everything they want, they’ve got their wealth, they’ve got their health, they can expect to live maybe twice as long as the equivalent person 10 years ago, and they are increasingly valuing experience over stuff. And also, there’s this strange philanthropic thing that is creeping into the way that these people think… This project just happens to hit that sweet spot, because it is the ultimate experience. And, by getting involved early, they are potentially helping to do something quite important in the future.

…I guess it’s the same when we first went up in aircraft, to be able to see the network of lanes or roads or whatever it was, from 1000 feet, gives you a completely different perspective on your village or your town or city, and to be able to do the same with the Earth is a remarkable thing.