October 14, 2013

Turnaround Strategist

In his seven years at Virgin, Shai Weiss ’97 has helped the global megabrand take on new ventures.

Jen Itzenson

Sixteen years after his graduation, Shai Weiss ’97 still finds himself working on 13-week cash flows, just like he learned from Professor John Whitney.

“Everyone who took that class would remember that the 13-week cash flow is the most important thing in a turnaround,” Weiss says. “And that’s what I turn to, whenever I have a complicated situation. Although I don’t do it on my own now — there are a lot of people who work on it with me.”

Weiss is a partner with the Virgin Group, the multinational conglomerate founded by Richard Branson that has come to encompass not just music festivals and airlines but stem-cell banks and renewable energy funds. Two of its most recent forays have been into retail banking and healthcare — providing primary and community care services — in the UK. The purveyor of music and entertainment to the youth sector is growing up alongside its customers.

Weiss came to Virgin from the telecom sector. After graduating from Columbia and spending a few years with the M&A technology team for Morgan Stanley in London, he wanted to move to the principal side of the business. He opened an office for an early-stage Israel-based venture group called Jerusalem Venture Partners, or JVP, helping them expand into Europe. In 2001, Weiss moved to NTL, which at the time was Europe’s largest cable company. One of its divisions needed restructuring.

“We only look at industries where we think we can do something different, and better.”

“NTL was set up to take advantage of the deregulation of the UK cable market in the 90s, spending heavily on expanding its network and acquiring competitors,” says Weiss. The company grew rapidly, with forays into continental Europe in 2000. The financial crisis that year, coupled with severe integration problems, resulted in poor customer service — which led to large-scale bankruptcy in 2002. Weiss came in as part of the turnaround team and took on such roles as director of operations and managing director of the consumer business, with the goal of expanding NTL’s business.

But the NTL brand was tarnished in the eyes of customers; Weiss recognized the need to renew it. NTL’s CEO suggested rebranding under Virgin Mobile, a virtual network operator, through a licensing deal with Richard Branson. Weiss went a step further and suggested buying Virgin Mobile outright. NTL was already in talks to merge with Telewest, the second-largest cable company in the UK. The combined company would provide TV, telephone, broadband, and mobile services (“the Quad Play as we fondly referred to it,” says Weiss), and would be well positioned to compete with the formidable BSkyB media conglomerate, then the largest provider of satellite pay TV services.

The deal took about two years to finalize. Once completed, Branson was a large shareholder in the new company, which was named Virgin Media. It was recently acquired by John Malone’s Liberty Global for $23 billion — though it still carries the Virgin brand, like many of the conglomerate’s former holdings.

Virgin’s brand, which it manages in all of its core sectors and markets, is part of the company’s singular character, and at times seems to be an extension of Branson himself. “There’s definitely an overlap between Virgin, the brand, and Richard Branson, the person,” Weiss says. “The brand has been developed by the individual, and the individual is the epitome of the brand.”

In 2006, after his role with the creation of Virgin Media concluded, Weiss was recruited by Branson to form the Virgin Green Fund, where he focused on investing in renewable energy and resource efficiency. In his current role as one of the partners of the Virgin Group, he has branched out with the company in its recent ventures into financial and healthcare services.

“We only look at industries where we think we can do something different, and better,” says Weiss, referencing the brand’s promise — “Don’t just play the game. Change the game for good.” When you look at the acute problems of the Western world, says Weiss, healthcare and financial services are at the top of the list. “Our customers trust us, and they now know that we’re mature enough to handle the most important things: their wealth and their health.” The company is hoping to have a long-lasting impact in both of these sectors, with future growth in the UK and beyond.

When it comes to his own impact, Weiss thinks back to the people he met and continues to meet through Columbia. “The most important thing is that you’ve had an effect on the people around you,” he says. “That’s a quest I’ve been on since day one — building great teams, investing in people. And it’s really the best investment you can make — high satisfaction and excellent returns.”

Photo by Yiannis Katsaris

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