“If you have a happy workforce they’ll look after your customers anyway. You can have all the money you want in the world, and you can have all the brilliant ideas but if you don’t have the people, forget it.” – Tony Fernandes
Tony Fernandes – a Malaysian entrepreneur born in Kuala Lumpur, had a childhood dream of owning his own airline. He left Malaysia at the age of 12 to study at Epsom College in Surrey, England and then graduated from London School of Economics. Fernandes, an accountant, started his career with Warner then moved to Richard Branson’s Virgin Communications only to move back to Malaysia to explore a career in the music industry. He became the youngest managing director of Warner Music, Malaysia. After his career in music industry, he decided to finally fulfil his childhood dream of owning his own airlines.
As a firm believer of multiculturalism, Fernandes wanted to generate an airline that was accessible and affordable but with great style. Instead of starting from scratch, Fernandes bought an existing airline; Air Asia. Right after the 9/11 terror attacks, Fernandes mortgaged his home to buy Air Asia – an ailing Malaysian owned airline for one ringgit with $11 million worth of debt. After a year in business, Air Asia broke even and was able to settle all their debts. Fernandes was able to turn an ailing airline into a profitable budget airline in a span of 2 years. AirAsia has grown from a Malaysian domestic airline to the largest low-cost carrier in Asia in terms of fleet size and passengers carried. The story of redemption has been truly exceptional: the budget airline has been named the world’s best low-cost airline hence the tag line “Now everyone can fly”.
Air Asia is molded by culture, openness and transparency. Fernandes maintains a flat culture way of working whereas everyone plays a part in Air Asia and are all equally important. Fernandes says that to him “employees come number one, customers come number two. If you have a happy workforce they’ll look after your customers anyway. You can have all the money you want in the world, and you can have all the brilliant ideas but if you don’t have the people, forget it.” Fernandes adopts a “walk around” management style. According to his interview with BBC, he shared his experience working alongside his staff, “If you sit up in your ivory tower and just look at financial reports, you’re going to make some big mistakes.” For a few days every month he works on the ground or in the cabin crew. He says he’s learned a lot from working on the airline himself. Fernandes turned down the idea of belt loaders at first but on his next stint working alongside staff, he almost broke his back while loading the plane. He says that without the experience, “I could have made a decision – a very wrong decision that damaged a lot of people and destroyed the morale of the organisation at that level.” Through this, Fernandes was able to create an environment for innovation.
The branding of Fernandes’s airline felt like Branson’s Virgin, down to the color scheme and logo typeface, but the bigger inspiration was the boom in low-cost flying that was transforming Europe’s flightmaps. Soon the fleet was expanding rapidly, and within a decade Air Asia was flying 30 million passengers annually. He is one of the first CEOs to harness the power of social media networks to sell tickets and market his airline. Fernandes believes in involving himself in the day-to-day functions of an airline.
While the group’s HQ is in Malaysia, the Air Asia brand has become a pillar for foreign airlines in which Fernandes has a stake. He bought 49% of the then AWAIR, an Indonesian low-cost carrier, in 2004, rebranding it as Indonesia Air Asia the following year. Similar joint ventures have brought Air Asia into the Philippines, Thailand, Japan and most recently into India. With large numbers of new planes in order, Fernandes has spoken of Air Asia X — linking Europe and Asia via low-cost long haul in the years ahead, starting with a London route.
Fernandes has also made ventures in other arenas – in Britain, he most famously bought football club, the Queens Park Rangers, and a Formula One racing team to add to his hotel, education, mobile phone and insurance ventures. Fernandes has received numerous awards from the industry observers and international press alike. Among the awards are, ‘Malaysia CEO of the year 2003’ by American Express and the Business Times, ‘Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year – Malaysia 2003’ at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2004, ‘Airline Business Strategy Award 2005, the first Asian to receive the Forbes Asia Businessman of the Year award in 2010, and most recently, the 2016 EY ASEAN Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.
It’s easy to see that Air Asia is now an ASEAN champion with global recognition. One that has connected the different communities through making air travel accessible to all.