SINGAPORE: After more than a decade barrelling through long-standing industry norms and riding the wave of new business opportunities, AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes is now trying to appreciate life in the slow lane.
He was speaking to Channel NewsAsia after the launch of his new memoir, Flying High, in Singapore on Monday (Oct 30). The 244-page book chronicles the Malaysian entrepreneur’s childhood, teenage years as a boarding school student in the United Kingdom and subsequent journey from running a music company to an airline.
In the book, the 53-year-old described himself as a man who “did everything to the max”. Over the past year, however, he has been working out a “proper balance” as he realised that “life is also about taking a break” and that it was impossible to “run at 100 per cent all day, every day”.
Mr Fernandes, who often works up to 18 hours a day and finds sleeping a waste of time, said he’s been trying to “slow down a little bit”.
“When I (travel), it’ll just be meetings and meetings before I fly off. Now, I’d spend a bit more time enjoying the culture and the place. Just slow down a little bit and moderating my pace,” he said.
“In some ways, I think I’m more effective now because I’m stable.”
This stability, according to Mr Fernandes, comes from his wife, Chloe, whom he married two weeks ago. The couple, who first met at a restaurant in Paris, had been dating for two years.
Mr Fernandes described his wife – a 34-year-old South Korean – as a “good stabilising factor” for him.
“I’m happy. I’m stable. I’m not running around like a headless chicken,” he told Channel NewsAsia. “I’ve got a fantastic partner who makes me feel very content and happy, and I enjoy being with her.”
AN ACCOUNTANT, MUSIC EXECUTIVE THEN AIRLINE CEO
Often referred to as the man who spearheaded the idea of budget travel in Asia, Mr Fernandes’ foray into the aviation industry stemmed from a childhood dream of being the boss of an airline.
Undaunted by his lack of industry experience, Mr Fernandes and his business partner Kamarudin Meranun took over the debt-ridden AirAsia at a cost of 1 ringgit in 2001, and later transformed it into Asia’s biggest low-cost carrier. From an ailing two-plane airline, AirAsia now owns 220 aircraft and its staff size has ballooned from 200 to 20,000 across Asia.
Orchestrated by “a bunch of guys from the music business”, the success of AirAsia, which upended an industry long dominated by national flag carriers, has been a “fairy tale”, said Mr Fernandes who has a degree in accountancy.
“I was the most positive person in the world but never would I believe that we could have created what we created. There’s a lot of big bad wolves out there who wanted to kill us and we are like the Little Red Riding Hood.”
As AirAsia took flight, the business mogul dabbled with Formula One in 2009. Two years later, he made his way into football with the purchase of English football club Queens Park Rangers.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. For one, Mr Fernandes described his foray into F1, which ran up higher-than-expected costs, as “a spectacular disaster”. AirAsia also had its own share of challenges from crises such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the global financial crisis in 2008 and in 2014, the crash of flight QZ8501.
Despite that, there was never a point when he felt like throwing in the towel, he said. Music, lots of chocolate and the love for challenges kept the businessman going.
“I’ve had some pretty dark days but it just isn’t in my DNA to give up,” Mr Fernandes said. “My staff kept me together, as well as the belief that what we were doing would change people’s lives.”
With this never-say-die attitude, Mr Fernandes said AirAsia has achieved several proud moments, with the upcoming relocation of its operations to Changi Airport’s Terminal 4 being one of them.
“If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I have no complaints,” he said.
In his memoir, Mr Fernandes noted that Asian corporate leaders tended to overstay and mentioned how a chat with F1 world champion Nico Rosberg taught him the meaning of how great leaders must know when to quit. Rosberg announced his retirement days after winning the title in 2016.
When asked whether that means he is planning to hand over the reins of AirAsia soon, Mr Fernandes replied: “I still have a lot to contribute. I don’t think it is right to go yet but the time is approaching and great leaders must know when to go.”
He added: “More importantly when you go, the next leader must be able to make the company even better. If you leave and your company collapses, then you’ve achieved nothing.”
But for now, his plate is full with the roll-out of his “One AirAsia” vision, which involves consolidating the low-cost carrier’s Southeast Asian units under one listed holding company.
He has also begun steering the company towards a digital transformation two years ago, with the clean-up of data and implementing new work processes to encourage collaboration and spark innovation.
“I believe that I have to start this journey for AirAsia. I won’t complete it because the digital revolution is by no means over – but I need to start that process … A lot of investments have been put in and we have been building the foundation to get the data and once that is built, we can start getting the data and exponential growth will be much quicker.”
Part of that process involves investing and collaboration with start-ups. One of which is UK-based Big Data for Humans, which offers data for the retail and travel sectors.
“We will come up with ideas but we will never come up with all the ideas. We invest in strategic start-ups and I think we can respond quicker than some other companies because we came from that ecosystem.”
Mr Fernandes, whose name is synonymous with disruption, has also made a move into e-sports – a venture that he gives his son Stephen credit for.
“My son told me to invest in computer games and I thought to myself: ‘What a stupid sport’. He also said that one day it would be an Olympic sport and I was like: ‘Yeah, not in my lifetime’ but now I think it will be in my lifetime. But I took note and we are going to be in e-sports.
“We did football when everyone thought it was stupid to be doing it. But now that they are doing it, we are moving into MMA (mixed martial arts) and even computer games. We have always been a leader, instead of a follower. Some things we failed but for a lot of other things, we’ve been right.”
“DREAMS DO COME TRUE”
And it is this defiance of conventional business wisdom that has made Mr Fernandes somewhat of a rock star and a role model for some budding entrepreneurs.
For the man himself, it has been surreal.
“Life hasn’t changed much for me. I still feel like the same person as before … so it’s a fantasy to see a book about me and to hear kids up there saying I have inspired them. It’s a nice feeling but I never believed it would happen,” said Mr Fernandes, who was dressed in his usual get-up of a black t-shirt and jeans.
Still, he hopes that his book will be an inspiration and a proof that dreams “do come true”.
“Firstly, dreaming is good. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t dream. Secondly, love whatever you do and understand that there’s no substitute to hard work. Lastly, live life to the most. Don’t listen to others – I’ve never listened to my parents who told me to be a doctor but I did what I wanted to do,” said Mr Fernandes.
“So live your life. You have one shot at it. Make the most of it and be happy.”