What if a sketch on a beer mat could lead to an airline? This is the story of Virgin Australia

Richard Branson wiht the Virgin Australia team
Virgin Australia
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 12 February 2024

The best ideas don’t always need detailed financial projections and complicated business proposals. Sometimes they come from a simple ‘what if’ moment and some sketches on the back of a beer mat. One such idea led to the fastest growing Virgin company of all time: Virgin Australia...

The beer mat sketch had been scribbled by Brett Godfrey, who was the chief financial officer for Virgin Express, which was our European carrier in the 90s and 00s.

I loved how Brett led by example and was so personable, so when a CEO position became available, I offered Brett the job right away. Sadly, he had already made the decision to move back to Australia. I was disappointed, but I always respect a person who puts family first. I wished him all the best, and said: “If you want to do anything in Australia, let me know…”

Richard Branson and Brett Godfrey smiling, looking at the camera
Image from Virgin.com

“Funny you should say that…” he replied. There was a muffled sound on the phone and Brett scrambled around for something: “I wrote an idea down on the back of some beer mats…” As it turned out, Brett had been at the pub with airline expert Rob Sherrand. At the time, people were being ripped off by the duopoly that Qantas and Ansett had on the market and they began brainstorming ways to bring a low-cost carrier model to Australia.

I was immediately intrigued. The next day, Brett delivered a proposal to my door. The numbers added up, the vision was clear, and Brett’s enthusiasm was infectious. Who says accountants can’t be imaginative? Australia’s aviation market was exactly the kind of industry Virgin was built to disrupt. Let’s go.

Richard Branson and a large group of Virgin Blue employees standing in front of a Virgin Blue aeroplane
Virgin Blue | Launching Australia's first low-cost airline

But wait, the board at Virgin still needed persuading. There was a general lack of enthusiasm, but it made me even more determined. “Look at the upsides, then look at the downsides. The potential is massive; there is risk, but it is manageable,” I said. A dream scenario, right? I also argued for the element of surprise. Virgin was just establishing itself as a brand on a global scale, so nobody would see us coming from 10,000 miles away. Eventually, they agreed.

Richard Branson launching Virgin Blue
Virgin Australia

When hiring for the airline, we wanted people who would bring the Virgin spirit down under. “If you’ve got purple hair and you’re working in a butcher’s shop and you can still smile after a tough day, you’re the kind of cabin crew we’re looking for...” This was the job description, and the candidates did not disappoint. Fast forward to 2023, and the airline has been named the Best Cabin Crew five years in a row.

Richard Branson with the Virgin Australia team in Brisbane
Virgin Australia

We called the airline Virgin Blue and launched it with a A$10 million budget. For context, JetBlue launched with US$120 million. We were eager to use the internet like no airline before us and within six months, 92% of bookings were online. It reduced our costs considerably, and it opened up a world of possibility. We launched with cut-price fares and Qantas’ stock price plummeted by $2 billion (AUD). The team grew from twelve employees in March 2000 to 350 in August, and the A$10 million investment turned into a A$120 million valuation in under a year.

Richard Branson pretending to work at the Virgin Australia check-in desk
Kami White

Over two decades and one name change later, Virgin Australia is still disrupting the Australian industry. When other low-cost carriers emerged to compete with us, we pivoted into a full-scale airline and launched international routes. We developed new livery, new uniforms, new onboard menus options and a business class product. We went from flying one route to flying all over the country and expanding internationally too.

Richard Branson wearing a Virgin Blue jumpsuit
Kami White

Then, 2020 arrived. The global pandemic shook the industry to its core, and Virgin Australia went into voluntary administration. It was incredibly stressful and heart-breaking to think the journey might be over. However, Virgin Australia streamlined, re-focussed, and rose to the challenge. Now, the airline is all over the skies again – with direct flights between 32 Australian cities and international flights to Bali, Tokyo, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and Queenstown. Everything the airline does is still packed with Virgin spirit, from its Middle Seat Lottery to LGBTQI+ Pride flights, mentoring programmes, and an extensive loyalty program.

Who knew that a few pints, a beer mat and a ‘what if’ moment could lead to this!