They laughed at Fernandes, but look at him now
Who is AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes and what inspires the man to embark on new projects all the time, from an airline and a Formula One team to the Queens Park Rangers soccer club? Here are excerpts from the first half of an interview he gave during a recent visit to Bangkok.
Why did you want to run an airline business in the first place?
My mother used to sell Tupperware, and I always went and met her at the airport. She was flying around selling Tupperware, and I love planes. I remember when I was five or six years old, I told my dad I wanted to own an airline. Of course he laughed at me. My whole life has been like that. Everyone laughs at me whenever I say something.
It really formed in my mind when I was sent to boarding school. I called up my mother and said I'd like to come home for half-term. She said it's too expensive. And I said to her one day, I want to make travel cheap. That was how it really started to form in my mind. Whether I really believed it would happen I'm not sure, but I'm one of those guys who never stop dreaming. And from some dreams comes some reality.
What did you see at the time when you started AirAsia?
There's a very fine line between brilliance and stupidity. It's very narrow. I wasn't a big analyst. If I was, I never would have started it. I just said, do people want to fly cheap? Yes. So I started it. Did I say this is the right time? I never thought about it. Six hundred million people in Southeast Asia and 25 million people in Malaysia. I thought if I could make this work, it would definitely work. So I just went with it.
Was it fun?
It was fun and it was scary. Fun because hey, how many people can say you own an airline, right? It was fun because you meet people in the street who come up to you and say, I thought I would never fly. Fun because you gave people jobs whether they were pilots or cabin crew.
It was scary in that I knew nothing about aviation. I was from the music business. It was scary because I took over an airline with 250 staff and if I failed, they would be out of a job. That's what scared me the most. If I failed, people who consistently got their salary from a big conglomerate, DRB-Hicom, would be out of a job.
Did you have an airline model in mind?
Yes. The first low-cost airline I flew was Ryanair. I was so impressed with the model and I said this is what I wanted to be. But I thought we could be Asian about it.
You opened up a new whole industry - budget airlines - and now there are new players. How fierce is the competition today?
Everyone talks to me about that, but I remind everybody that I started the airline with two planes against Malaysia Airlines with 150 planes. That's competition. I started a route from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore against the best airline in Asia, if not the world, Singapore Airlines. So competition is always there. It was fiercest when I was small.
Is it a natural progression for you to branch into the hotel business with Tune Hotels?
What I found is Asia is always fixated on six stars, seven stars, tallest, highest, most expensive cars, etc, but the mass market is never looked after. When everyone is fixated on flat beds on a plane or flying on feathers, I say there's a huge market not being looked after.
Do you ever make a wrong business decision?
People say I'm a nut case to have bought Queens Park Rangers [laughs]. Business is never a perfect science, but as long as you learn ... I made lots of mistakes along the way. I'm very impulsive. I say things I shouldn't say and upset a lot of people. I am very outspoken. Business is about compromise, and maybe I've been brash in the way I do things sometimes.
What's your goal in life - to be like one of the richest men in the world?
Oh, God no. Money is a by-product of fun, isn't it? I'm not driven by money. Let's get it right. Money allows you to have more fun and be more independent, but I like creating, building and making people successful.
One of the greatest things is I took a guy from the music business who's earning a salary and made him very successful in Thai AirAsia. That's great. No one can take that away from me no matter what happens in the future.
What keeps me going is to help many people make dreams come true. I've lived a wonderful life, and if I'm hit by a bus tomorrow, which in Asia is highly likely, I've had a great life. If I can share my experiences and allow other people to benefit and be successful, then I'll have accomplished something great.
What would be your message to other entrepreneurs who look up to you as their role model?
That's strange if anyone would look up to me [laughs]. But anyway, my message is very clear - don't listen to anyone, go with your heart. You only live once. Don't be afraid of failure. You don't want to sit there at 55 and say, I wish I'd done that. It's too late.
Go out there and do what you want to do and believe in your own ability to do it. If you have drive, if you have energy, it's amazing what you can do.
Everyone will tell you why it can't be done. Don't listen to them. And don't be afraid of failure, because if you fail, you can try again or you can give up, but at least you've tried. You don't want to sit at the end of your clock and say, I wish I did that.
And the very last thing is, be positive. Being an entrepreneur is bloody tough.
There's no easy road, no easy success. You have to work hard. There's no quick fix. Be positive because life is tough. There's no easy short cut.
In summary, be positive, go with your heart, be the best and surround yourself with great people.
Tony Fernandes' interview with the 'Mong Rao Mong Lok' programme was aired on Nation Channel on Sunday. The second half will be published tomorrow.