David Osborne is accustomed to being on the move, a trait you expect from the leader of a workplace wellness company.
As CEO of Virgin Pulse, created in 2004 by visionary British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, Osborne’s life runs at a fast pace. When he isn’t traveling, or meeting with customers and colleagues, or working at the company’s Rhode Island headquarters, he’s integrating new businesses into the aggressively growing Virgin Pulse family.
But as COVID-19 took hold, Osborne was sheltered in place, like so many others. He spent the pandemic’s first months in isolation, working from his Atlanta condo, overseeing the digital-leader in workplace wellness by phone and computer.
“COVID has done a lot to people,” Osborne says. “They’re coming out of this kind of broken, with depression, financial worries, and other problems. Everyone is experiencing this pandemic differently and has different needs. As a business leader, I know that empathy, communication and flexibility are key to helping our employees manage through this crisis.”
In response, his company went to work.
Virgin Pulse provides health and wellness software and services to companies in 190 countries, employing a digital platform with the appeal of a game while encouraging members to improve their physical and mental health, sleep, and eating habits. It tracks performance and vital statistics, awarding points for reaching goals that client companies can reward with incentives.
“The main idea is to encourage employees to do small things every day to build healthy habits and lifestyles,” he says. “The more we can support their mental, physical, emotional and social health today, the better and faster we can help them adjust to whatever their new normal is moving forward.”
The company took immediate steps responding to the pandemic, rolling out a VP Passport program to help customers reopen offices safely while emphasizing a new social contract focusing on empathy in the workplace. It also offered a live component with staff coaches and counselors to help members cope with the new pressures.
And there are many members to reach. Virgin Pulse’s digital platform boasts 12 million members, with an astonishing 60 percent using it daily — a usage rate surpassed only by Facebook, Osborne says.
He is one of those daily users — Osborne tracks his progress with a “MaxBuzz,” the Virgin Pulse answer to Fitbit, which monitors his physical activity and sleep. During a phone interview, he paced around his condo, which he shares with his two daughters, Parker, 14, and Hollan, 8. He, along with his partner Amy, follow a plant-based diet and he is a frequent treadmill stepper who dismisses sitting as “the new smoking.”
The constant walking is nothing new. He was an NCAA Division I golfer at Florida International and Colorado State, where he earned a degree in finance. Osborne was an unlikely big-time college golfer — a Toronto kid who audaciously applied to Division I golf programs around the U.S. He was rejected until he contacted Bobby Shave, the unconventional former PGA Tour pro and head coach at FIU.
“He thought it was funny that a left-handed Canadian wanted to play in Miami against all these guys who played competitively year-round and whose parents were golf pros,” he says. “He thought it was so hilarious that he said, ‘It’s remarkable you think you can do this. If you can get into school, come on down.’ I did, and he picked me up at the airport.”
To everyone’s surprise, Osborne made the team, earned a scholarship, and lettered.
But he found Miami “kind of rough for a 19-year-old” and followed a friend to Colorado State. Osborne walked on for the Rams and made the team, but only competed in a few tournaments before deciding to focus on his studies. His decision was solidified during his final college tournament when he played against another left-hander — Phil Mickelson of Arizona State.
“I realized I was not good enough to go pro, and I decided to be a normal student,” he says, noting he was in the crowd when Mickelson won his first Masters Tournament.
After graduation from CSU, Osborne worked for 12 years in global sales, mergers and acquisitions, and other finance-related jobs. While living in Atlanta, he applied to Terry’s Executive MBA program.
“I was able to apply some of my life experiences in my classes,” he says. “One area that helped me was learning to be a good leader. I also focused on finance and how to evaluate companies.”
After earning his MBA, he went directly into private equity and developed a laser-like focus on M&A — successfully buying and integrating companies. That talent led Insight Venture Partners to suggest he work with Virgin Pulse for a year to help guide the company’s rapid growth. The company was a perfect match. He was hired as president and COO in 2016 and named CEO in 2017.
“I love this great company,” Osborne says. “Sir Richard appointed me CEO. He’s a great guy with tons of great stories, and he really does care about his employees.”
Virgin Pulse reopened its headquarters gradually and safely this summer. Some employees have voluntarily returned to the office, where the company provides standing desks, treadmill desks, and a running track on the top floor. The company has 350 employees in Providence and 1,400 full-time globally. Osborne calls Providence “Silicon Valley at $21 a square foot.”
Virgin Pulse is vital because “our health care system is broken and it’s not fixable,” he says, comparing it to the collapsing taxicab industry. “Uber and Lyft innovated around it, and that’s what we’re doing with health and wellness.”
The B-to-B company ventured into the public sector and now serves major universities — including UGA — for staff and faculty. “We’re working on rolling it out to students to keep them healthy and connected to family and friends,” he says.
A big believer in incentives, Osborne introduced Touchstone Coins — inspired by challenge coins used by ancient armies — to reward high-performing employees who go above and beyond their jobs. Executives are required to carry their coins and can be challenged to show them. If they don’t have it, they pay up with a meal or bar tab. Osborne enjoyed challenging a group of top executives at an expensive lunch. The chief medical officer groaned because he didn’t have his. He had to pay the bill and couldn’t expense it.
Osborne’s advice for Terry students: “Get ready for change. Accept the fact that normal
is not normal. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” He urges them to “find a pedestal
that is comfortable for you to have a voice and be vocal. And appreciate
the privilege of being in a great school.”
He adds Virgin Pulse is in a growth spurt — the right company at the right time — and is hiring if students are interested in moving to Providence.
Pro Tip: The Touchstone Coin reveals the virtues the company seeks in new employees — “Hungry, Humble. Smart.”