Tony Fernandes is synonymous with Air Asia. At the age of 36, he quit as
vice-president of Warner Music Group in Southeast Asia and purchased, with three
partners, ailing Malaysian airline Air Asia. As CEO, he has used a combination
of low costs, low fares and an open and informal management style to turn it
into Asia's biggest low-cost carrier.
Tony is candid, friendly and outspoken.
When he came up with the idea of purchasing the airline, he told his wife 'I
really believe in this.' He felt there was a huge untapped market in Asia -
millions of people wanted to fly but could not afford it. Here is Tony's account
of his recipe for success.
`Many friends cautioned me. They told me I would fail. I simply told them
this: If I fail, I fail. At least I won't be sitting and saying, when I am 60
years old, "I should have tried".'
Tony spends a lot of time speaking at schools, encouraging kids to pursue
their own dreams. 'I tell them it can be done. Look at me, there's nothing
special about me. You've just got to believe in yourself. You don't have to be
connected to a politician. You don't have to have money. You just need to
believe that you can go out there and do it.'
`Don't be frightened of failing because then you'll never start and if you
fail, try again,' he advises. At Warner, Tony had spent a fortune on Malaysian
singer Zainal Abidin's second album which flopped. `That didn't stop me from
pushing on with my work, my dreams.'
He is always delighted when he receives a lot of letters from people saying
that he has inspired them, that they are going to try something different. `That
really spurs me on.'
Don't be afraid of making mistakes. If you don't make mistakes, you'll never
learn. But when you do mess up, be the first to admit it. Don't try to cover
yourself. Once in a while I do this too. For example, when I insisted Air Asia
fly from Kuala Lumpur to Penang four times a day, even though Malaysian Airlines
flew the same route 12 times a day. He realized he couldn't compete against the
buses. The buses pick you up and drop you off right in the middle of each city.
They get people to Penang faster. With airlines, one has to go to the airport
and then back from the airport to the city. I just said, 'Sorry guys. I messed
up. It's my fault, I was wrong.' I even said sorry to my pilots when a merit
system for awarding bonuses to pilots backfired. The pilots were unhappy and
made no secret of it. They really appreciated my apologies.
As a manager, you have to be accessible. I talk to everyone - my staff, our
passengers, the media. If you just sit in your office, you don't know what is
going on. Every day in the office, I set aside two hours to spend with the
staff. I walk around, go to the baggage handling area, see what's going on, joke
around. Accessibility helps you earn the confidence of people around you. It
makes them feel they can talk openly and without fear. They should have the
freedom to say `This is wrong.' Being accessible means being open. At the end of
the day, human relationships are about openness, trust and transparency.
When I was growing up, my parents wanted me to be a doctor like my father.
After my failing in physics and chemistry due to zero work for my A levels, my
parents realized they couldn't force me to do anything I didn't want to. My
first love was always music and my dream was to own a record company. But I'm
realistic. I knew I could never raise enough money to compete with the likes of
Warner and Sony. So, no matter what you love, you've got to be a realist.
Also look beyond the money when you pursue something. It's nice to have
money. I like the nice things money can buy. But I am not doing this for money.
I was paid a fortune at Warner but I left. The big kick for me is using money to
help others. There are a lot of smart people who never got the chance to go to
school, so I sponsor cadet pilots. Money is just a by-product of what I do.