Q: I AGREE that a company shouldn't only make money. It should also help society. I'm hoping to open up a fitness chain. How can I help my community or the environment with this business? - Frederik Mogensen, Denmark
A: Well, Frederik, the health clubs in our international chain, Virgin Active, have been very effective in helping their local communities, so let's look at what they are doing and then perhaps you can develop ideas and projects tailored to your business.
Virgin Active's core purpose is to improve community health by helping its customers stay fit and enjoy an active lifestyle. With obesity rising and more young people being diagnosed every day with related diseases such as diabetes, our focus on healthier living is shared by governments and community groups.
So our clubs aim to become focal points for their communities, encouraging members to eat better and exercise. The clubs help members to take control of their health and fitness regimes by offering access to other Virgin companies such as HealthMiles (which helps companies promote good health in the workplace) and Life Care (which measures health). These programmes help members track their progress toward personalised health goals and also offer incentives for reaching them. And through our websites everyone, including non-members, can access daily tips on fitness and guidelines on nutritious eating, and they can also complete online health checks.
In South Africa, Virgin Active has been working with our Virgin Unite foundation to create a fitness and sports programme for South African schoolchildren. It is planning to provide schools with coaches, mentoring and in some cases equipment - all crucial to inspiring young people to exercise more.
Additionally, Virgin Active donated equipment to a gym in a low-income community in South Africa and to a young offenders' unit in an Australian jail. The business has also started to develop a range of clubs in developing markets where the mainstream operators do not usually open franchises, such as the district of Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg. We opened a club there last year, adapting it to the local community's needs by including a hair salon run by a local entrepreneur and increasing the number of computers offering Internet access for our members.
Our Virgin Active clubs must also minimise the negative impacts they have on the environment. While Active has devoted a lot of effort to building modern, beautiful facilities, at the same time it has focused on lessening energy and water usage in every building, thereby proving that living sustainably doesn't have to mean cutting back.
Virgin Active is constantly reducing its energy use and water footprint by putting new measures in place: heat-recovery systems, energy-saving lighting, solar panels, timers on taps, and systems that reuse swimming pool water for flushing toilets. The attention to detail is exceptional. One experiment that caught my eye was when the team tried new paints on the rooftops, hoping to reduce heat absorption.
They also keep the basics in mind: switching things off when not needed, and monitoring usage. Virgin Active has engineering teams sneaking around its clubs at night, sniffing out where electricity is being wasted. And in South Africa, we have a web-based energy logging system for most of our 99 clubs. The monitors are so fanatical about energy use that club managers can expect a phone call in the morning if they forget to roll out the pool covers the previous night. The difference shows up on the energy graph!
These efforts make great business sense as energy prices are rising fast all over the world - and a club or chain that can get these costs under control will gain a competitive advantage and perform better.
So, Frederik, your health club can offer a lot to society. Perhaps not all of Virgin Active's projects will be applicable in your situation, but if you focus on your goal of caring for your community and the environment and ask your customers and community leaders for advice, you'll soon have many ideas of your own. Your approach is a great one: a business led by someone committed to such goals will have a much better chance of thriving - and outstripping the competition.
© 2012 Richard Branson. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
. Branson is founder of the Virgin Group. He blogs at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardbranson. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name, country, e-mail address and the publication.