The Inspiring Backstory of Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia
“It’s essential to run at an opportunity when you see it, especially if it’s unexpected. I was turned down a job. As I was leaving the interview I saw Virgin founder Richard Branson. Instinctively, I knew this was a make-or-break moment so I approached him. We had coffee, he made me an offer and the rest is history”
I had the great pleasure to interview Tony Fernandes. In 2001, Tony Fernandes bought debt-ridden AirAsia for one Malaysian Ringgit (about 24 US cents), with a vision to make flying accessible for everyone. Fast forward 16 years, and the international, no frills airline now flies over 56.6 million passengers to over 120 destinations.
Yitzi: What is your “backstory”?
Tony: After graduating from the London School of Economics with a degree in accounting, I spent several years at Virgin Communications in London, eventually becoming financial controller. I soon jumped over to Warner Music Group, and served as the Southeast Asian regional vice-president for nine years. I loved entertainment, but I also enjoyed flying, which was considered an unattainable luxury for many in the southeast Asian region. I made it my mission to make flying accessible for everyone. In fall of 2001, a time when airlines worldwide were struggling after the 9/11 attacks, I bought AirAsia, a Malaysian government-owned airline that was $11 million in debt, for 24 cents. The company was pulled out of debt in less than two years, and is now worth over $1.5 billion. In 2007, I also started Tune Group, a conglomerate of hotel, telecommunication, financial services, sports, media and creative industries subsidiaries.
Yitzi: Which person or which company do you most admire and why?
Tony: Elon Musk. He is a rare breed of thinker, dreamer and doer. Few others are willing to take on big problems, propose radical solutions then go all-out to make those a reality, whether it’s electric cars, space travel, brain computers, Hyperloop or tunnels.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Tony: As an airline, AirAsia believes in giving back to the communities it serves. We set up AirAsia Foundation, which works with Asean social entrepreneurs to promote a wide range of ethical goals from heritage conservation to wildlife welfare, at the same time creating fair, inclusive and sustainable businesses. We sell some of their products onboard, including Muser shade-grown coffee from Thailand, Kotagede silverware from Indonesia and handmade Rags2Riches bags from the Philippines. We also strongly believe in empowering women in the region. We were the first airline in Malaysia to have female pilots, and they make up 5.5 percent of all our pilots, a higher ratio than in the US.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
- If It’s Not There, Make it Happen. Ever since I was a young boy in Malaysia, I have been passionate about football (soccer). But when I was in boarding school in the UK, rugby was the sport of choice. Not deterred, I started the school’s first football league.I could have resigned myself to the sport already in place and left my passion for football at home. But I discovered that others were happy to join me if they could share my enthusiasm and conviction. This early lesson has proven true again and again. I’ve been able to create many times what didn’t exist before, as long as I’m clear about my goal, share my passion, and bring others along with me.
- The Most Unexpected Moment May be the One that Matters Most. It’s essential to run at an opportunity when you see it, especially if it’s unexpected.My work at Virgin Communications laid the foundation for everything that happened next in my career. But I almost didn’t get the job. After being turned down, I was leaving the interview and saw Virgin founder Richard Branson. Instinctively, I knew this was a make-or-break moment so I approached him. We had coffee, he made me an offer and the rest is history.
- Know Your Goal and Pursue It Relentlessly. I’ve always loved flying, and felt that it should be available to everyone, not the select few. It was a vision I always had in the back of my mind — I’m going to find a way to bring air travel to more people.By offering a low-cost, short-haul service, we disrupted an industry long dominated by state-run companies. Soon after, we faced a test — the 2002 Bali bombings. While other companies withdrew their business from the island, we offered 5,000 free seats, which sold virtually overnight. It showed great things can happen when you pursue your goal and help others.
- Be Flexible and Turn Setbacks into Learnings. Sometimes, you need to be flexible enough to adapt. In 2009, we launched our first long-haul flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to London, UK. Soon, the number of people flying between the two countries increased by a third. Just three years later, we had to pull the plug. Fuel prices increased quickly, and we were being hit by large unexpected taxes. Moving from short-haul to long-haul was too abrupt a transition, so instead we focused on the medium-haul market, with a maximum flight time of eight hours. By 2017, we were ready to try again and introduced our first route to the US, putting AirAsia back on the global map.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Fail. People underestimate the value of failure. No one gets everything right the first time around — you will stumble and fall along the way. But every time that happens, you get better, smarter, and those lessons will help you get where you want to be eventually.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for your profound insights, Tony