AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes took to the Centre Stage at Asia’s largest tech conference RISE to tell his truly inspiring story from bootstrapping to IPO and more. 

Kickstarting his career at Warner Music, Tony Fernandes has lived quite the journey on his way to becoming CEO of AirAsia. Having bought the low-cost Malaysian airline for RM 1 (USD 0.25) from the government in 2010, the Kuala Lumpur-born entrepreneur has successfully transformed AirAsia into Malaysia’s largest airline by fleet – one that offers flights to more than 165 destinations. With his infectious charisma, Tony took the crowd by storm at RISE last week where he spoke about how he turned the beleaguered low-budget airline into a money-making company.

AirAsia Malaysian Budget Low Cost Airline RISE Tony Fernades CEO

Photo credit: Harry Murphy/RISE via Sportsfile

“After I quit my job at Warner Music, I sat in a bar, thinking, what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. It was at Luton Airport in London where I saw people flying to Barcelona for £8 and Paris for £6 and I told myself, ‘I’m going to do this. I’d rather try and fail than not try at all,’” begins Tony on how he made his aviation debut. However, instead of starting something from scratch, he began by buying out AirAsia, then an indebted, government-owned entity that comprised of two planes and USD 11 million worth of debt. Mortgaging his home and piling in his own personal savings, Tony was off in 2001, clearing all debts within AirAsia’s first year of operation and going on to IPO in 2004. His journey, however, was far from smooth, as he told a rapt audience at RISE. “Over the last 18 years, I’ve had to deal with SARS, the tsunami, terrorism, horrific airports and everything else. Actually, three days after we launched, 9/11 happened. It was a horrific thing, but it helped us because the prices of other airlines calmed down. Whenever there’s a problem, there’s always a silver lining to turn a negative into a positive.”

According to Tony, the key differential between AirAsia and others in the same space in his region was their focus on branding and positioning – something he sees as key to anyone wanting to make an impact. “Whatever you’re building and doing, make sure you put some money towards building your brand. We had no money at first. So, I’d go around wearing my AirAsia cap and the press would take lots of pictures. That’s how everyone knew our asset was our people, which is our brand as well,” he explained. “We did a lot of things to build our brand up such as sponsoring Formula One and UFC when no one even looked at UFC. This is how we’ve gone from two planes to 265 planes in 18 years.”

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AirAsia Malaysian Budget Low Cost Airline RISE Tony Fernades CEO

Photo credit: Harry Murphy/RISE via Sportsfile

Another important lesson Tony divulged in his talk was his firm belief in the power of the team. “We started with 200 staff and today we have 21,000 staff. It’s incredibly diverse and I’m super proud. I saw lots of really bright kids in my company who just didn’t have money for further education, yet had a bigger brain than me,” laughs Tony who has invested significant resources in helping those with true talent rise to the top, no matter where they start out from. “We met a super smart boy who wanted to be a pilot. His English wasn’t very good and it took him eleven times to pass the test. We told him to go for it right from the start and he eventually passed. Today, he’s a first officer on his way to becoming a captain. That’s what AirAsia is about. This is why we’re so strong,” he told his energised audience, going on to give other examples of AirAsia baggage handlers who ended up becoming captains and engineers. “My job is to turn road diamonds into diamonds. Your biggest asset as a startup is your people,” he announced.

Tony took his last few minutes on stage to address his company’s next steps. Having been named World’s Best Low-Cost Airline 11 times in a row, they have already branched out into hotels with TUNE Hotels, a fuss-free accommodation concept with outposts in Malaysia, India and the United Kingdom, and next, they plan to move into tech. “We have a huge amount of data. For example, our airline food has become so popular that we’re going to try and build some restaurants using digital technology. Our big advantage is a huge loyalty card with 25 million members and a massive amount of passengers,” says Tony who firmly believes AirAsia is a technology company. Given his track record so far, it seems a bet worth making. As he put it so compellingly, “Dare to dream. Believe the unbelievable. Go out there and change the world.”

Banner Photo Credit: Harry Murphy/RISE via Sportsfile

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