Cover Story – Tony Fernandes

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Recently, I was amongst the 15,000 people who tuned into the Facebook Live Chat with Tony Fernandes which was held by the World Economic Forum in Kuala Lumpur. The wonder of this new Facebook function is that it provides a two-way conversation between the host and the audience. This means that users can post direct questions and vice versa. Over 261 comments were posted during this 23 minute long Q&A, including Tony’s attempt to crowdsource from the Facebook audience to find out how he could improve AirAsia. One of the suggestions included flying to Africa, to which Tony responded that they are already flying to Mauritius and will also be flying to South Africa in the near future. He added that it is his ambition to have AirAsia in every continent.

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Tony Fernandes

In 2001, Tony Fernandes signed a deal to buy the failing commercial airline for around 25 cents. Three days later, 9/11 happened: passenger numbers around the world fell 2.7%, and did not recover for several years. But despite the inauspicious timing, AirAsia quickly became a highly successful low-cost carrier. Fernandes, who came up with the tagline “Now everyone can fly”, describes how, thanks to the internet, AirAsia was able to grow at a tremendous pace, going from 200,000 passengers in the company’s first year to 55 million last year. “We are really one of the babies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he said. “No-one in South East Asia used the internet to buy airline tickets. We painted ‘AirAsia.com’ on all our planes; we drove that message forward. We were the first airline to use social media to market and promote ourselves, and we’re now second largest airline in the world for social media, with 40 million followers in various forms.” On the subject of being a fast-growing business in the digital age, Fernandes said: “We’ve been amazed at the pace of change. It’s been fantastic for us. We’ve changed people’s lives and created a lot of jobs.”

On the topic of leadership, Fernandes described his leadership style as “informal”. Anyone who follows the AirAsia boss on social media might have come across videos of him walking around his offices chatting to staff, and he says that he spends half his time talking to managers about the running of the business.

Asked how he motivates employees, Fernandes says being transparent is crucial – it helps to be able to see the boss and know what he or she is doing. Also, helping people to advance their careers, or “live their dreams” is key to boosting morale within companies. “We reward people – not just monetarily, because anyone can do that – but by helping them advance their careers and allowing them to live their dreams. “One of our dispatch boys has now become a pilot. Those sorts of things keep people motivated.”

WEF ASEAN 2016
Photo credit: World Economic Forum

As one of ASEAN’s biggest business success stories, Fernandes was asked to share his advice for young people wanting to start a company. He sets out five key factors to keep in mind when launching a new business:

1. Don’t listen to anybody, follow your heart!

2. Get a product that people want.

3. Have a marketing budget. “Make sure people know about your product. Too many people have great ideas that no-one ever hears about. There’s so much noise out there it’s difficult to get people’s attention.”

4. Surround yourself with great people who complement your weaknesses. “In my case I had a fantastic partner who understood corporate finance a lot better than me. I was better at marketing and operations.”

5. Passion is very important. “Do something that you want to do, you believe in and that you love, and that will give you the energy to go forward.“

When asked to give his advice for startups from countries without any support, Fernandes responded candidly asking young people to not expect any support from anybody. He noted “too many ASEAN people are waiting for the easy option of Government or parents to help you. Just get on with it. Just do it. If I had waited for someone to help me to start an airline, I would never have started it. I just did it. If I failed, I failed. Don’t worry about failures. You don’t want to wait until 55 and say I wished I did it. Just do it. Life is great. You never know. Have dreams. From some dreams, come some realities.”

As for who has inspired Tony Fernandes’ life?

Tony did not single out a particular person. Instead, he said that inspiration can come from any source. Tony believes that we should all look for inspiration everyday by talking to people, engaging and networking. He stated: “There’s no one person that can really change your life. Life is a culmination of lots and lots of people that would inspire you and make you better.” He added: “I get inspired everyday. I recently met the president of a company who is a billionaire, he used to sell ice-cream. I meet great people everyday that inspire me. I met two young venture capitalists today who are just setting up their fund. Their energy and their passion got me going and we did a deal in 20 minutes.”

Tony Fernandes ended the conversation by restating his dream: to make ASEAN a smaller place. So that anyone can go anywhere, get to know each other better, start businesses together, have holidays together and create a stronger economy.

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This article was published in the Jul-Sept 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!