When it comes to public impact in Malaysia and beyond, Tony Fernandes has few peers. As one of Asia’s leading businessmen, his is a net cast far and wide, taking in not only aviation but also sport, hotels, the music industry and much else.
Well-versed in mixing time zones and responsibilities – he is also chairman and part-owner of Queens Park Rangers Football Club in London – he is best known for his airline, AirAsia. Having bought it from a Malaysian government-owned company in September 2001 for just 25 pence, it now flies millions of passengers a year to 90 destinations and is one of Asia’s most recognised brands.
No wonder, then, that Fernandes is one of Malaysia’s best known entrepreneurs, one guaranteed to draw an audience – from boardroom to television studio to airport terminal. He is keen to stress, however, that a large part of his success stems from good fortune, as well as the ability to spot, recruit and keep good people.
“Luck plays a big part,” he reflects. “So, too, does an idea, drive and passion. But the key thing is surrounding yourself with good people. Whatever idea you have or whatever energy you have, you’re just one person. The key is to have a great team, one that shares your vision and shares your passion.” Also helpful, however, is a willingness to embrace innovative ideas.
Liberate to innovate
The bulk of Fernandes’ career has been has been spent in and around South-East Asia. Another constant thread, however, has been his readiness to take on risks and start new ventures. An accountant by training, he had no aviation experience before he bought the airline, mortgaging his home and depleting his personal savings to do so. But he was confident in his innate ability to understand what makes Malaysians tick.
“We’ve got technological innovations like bag drops and apps, but we were the first airline in the region to use the internet to sell tickets,” he recalls. “No-one had used it in this part of the world because of concerns about things like credit card fraud, but I knew Malaysians very well: have a low fare and they will find a way to use the internet and, true enough, we grew.”
Innovation, he believes, is not about the tap of a keyboard or click of a mouse but more about the people leaders surround themselves with. “Innovation comes in many different shapes and forms, but I think what is key is to allow people to innovate and to encourage great ideas,” he says. “When people think of innovation they tend to think of new technologies, but, really, innovation is people, and people’s ability to think on the spot, think of new ideas and create an environment for innovation.”
Creating this culture stems from ensuring that every employee feels valued and is willing to try out new ideas or approaches. “As a business leader you have a responsibility first of all to your staff,” he adds. “You need to create a meritocracy where people can achieve anything they want. When I started Air Asia there were no female pilots. Now we have 62. We went from two planes to 200 planes today, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without being able to find talent and allow them develop and to live their dreams.”
Policymakers also have an important role to play in stimulating innovative activity, he says, but there is a fine line to tread. “Governments should encourage innovation, but they shouldn’t be in business; instead governments should facilitate business. In my business we have so many regulations. There are some great Malaysian and ASEAN companies out there who are not constrained by government regulations. GrabTaxi is a fantastic Malaysian company, for example, that is now all over the ASEAN region because regulators haven’t found a way of controlling them yet.”
Cleared for take-off
Fernandes’ business success has ensured that he never lacks a pulpit. A prolific user of social media, he does not shy away from articulating his perspectives – particularly when it comes to mapping the future of his airline. There is little doubt his voice will continue to echo across the business, sporting and entrepreneurial landscapes for years to come.
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