My last two years at Virgin I got to help concept, design, and develop the sexiest business I’ll likely ever be a part of: Virgin’s boutique/lifestyle hotel venture. (For a couple years, everyone took my calls, and spending time with the F&B/nightlife operators around NYC was part of my job). I had the pleasure of working with some of the most successful people in hospitality, real estate finance, and consumer branding to build Virgin’s answer to Morgan’s and The W. Together with Paul Whetsell, Raul Leal, Anthony Marino, and Thayer Thompson, we started a hotel management company from scratch, and raised some real estate private equity to acquire the commercial real estate assets that we needed to get the nacent hotel brand off the ground. Leaving Virgin – which I will forever refer to as the 2nd best job in the world after building your own company – is tough, but the skills I developed, the people I learned from, and the network I built provided a great launching pad into entrepreneurship. Besides, I highly doubt Richard ever would have taken the job I had there.
Richard Branson was my hero when I was fighting to get the Corporate Development job at Virgin, he was my hero when I was building businesses inside his empire, and he continues to be my hero. He’s an amazing person who has built a life everyone should strive for – competing vigorously to win at the things he was passionate about, prioritizing family, friends, and a good time, and living completely devoid of fear.
Working at Virgin USA, the US Venture arm, we had a fairly broad mandate, and we subsequently looked at most of the deals that were going on in NYC. In addition to hospitality and leisure, I spent a significant amount of time looking at the adventure travel businesses, disruptive healthcare models, live events businesses, and even some media properties. After a couple years, we ultimately narrowed in on hospitality, leisure and a few other industries where we could get significantly better economics (largely because the significant aviation asset we owned. Those days at 65 Bleecker were pretty amazing. There were probably a dozen investment professionals that cycled through Virgin including Dan Porter, Dun Wang, Nirmal Saverimutu, and Mike Brown. One of the smartest and high-performing peer groups I’ve ever been a part of. I remain very close to almost every one of them today, and I partly attribute that to the incredible culture that Richard created within Virgin.