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Choosing Excellence

Tony Fernandes is introduced to the Nordic Business Forum 2014 crowd as “The Sir Richard Branson of Asia,” which describes him well. If a 12-year boy dreams of an airline company, a Formula 1 team and a football club – and makes his dreams come true, we expect to hear something extraordinary. And we did.

If you saw Sir Richard at Nordic Business Forum 2012, you know it’s not only the entrepreneurial success story that Fernandes has in common. It is also his natural, down-to-earth appearance. The guy can be a multi-millionaire, but still look like an average Joe. Not to mention that the two distinguished gentlemen are both Sirs; Fernandes is “Dato”, which means the same thing in Malaysian. Both Sirs are revolutionary – Fernandes revolutionized the airline business in Asia. Surprisingly, one thing you might not know is that Sir Richard once was Fernandes’ employer at Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic. When Fernandes returned back home to Malaysia, he had an idea of a low-fare airline. The success story saw its dawn.

As the rock music starts together with loud applause, Fernandes walks on stage in his red baseball cap. He tells us that he has spoken around the world, but has never seen a Mexican wave in a business forum before. How unique is that? Oh yes, we can do that here in Finland. That shakes the image of us being shy, quiet introvert mobile phone engineers.

Fernandes charms the audience in seconds. “I’ve been waiting to come to Finland for a long, long time. Last night I flew in from… actually where… oh, Jakarta!” He talks about his very first night in Finland, wanting to go to a Finnish restaurant – which was probably the biggest mistake of his life. “Because I had something called ‘Kossu’,” he says and thinks it’s Heikki Kovalainen’s payback for selling the F1 team.

Similarly to Sir Richard, Fernandes started in the music industry. He says he thought he would never have the courage to be an entrepreneur. After three mergers in his career he decided that’s it. He was sitting at Rockefeller Plaza, New York and listening to AOL’s strategy after the merger. After a short time he said to the owner of AOL: “Please give me some of the drugs you are taking.” He left the room, sold his stock options, quit his job and flew to London, not knowing what he would do. So, he went to a bar to have a beer and met Sir Stelios, who owned EasyJet. Yes, he got the idea from him. Fernandes went to Luton airport to see what’s going on and liked what he saw; affordable prices to nice destinations and happy people. “There is a very fine line between brilliance and stupidity,” he says and continues, “I called my wife – who is not my wife anymore – and told her I was going to start an airline company. After she stopped laughing she said that I should open a bread shop.”

There is a very fine line between brilliance and stupidity.

From London, Fernandes flew back to Malaysia with the big dream in his mind, and wrote to three other people about it. The audience laughs out loud when he describes the situation when the founders were surfing the Internet, building an airline model and realized they need an airline license. What they also realized was that they needed political connections. “Umm… we have none,” Fernandes tells and makes the audience laugh again. Fernandes tells the detailed story about getting the license from the Malaysian prime minister – after everybody they had met prior to that practically just laughed in their faces. Although the prime minister was having a bad day at the time of the presentation, he loved it. “This is great. You have my blessing. You guys will succeed, because you are not from the airline business and you have a lot of passion.”

Fernandes moves on to the point where they had to establish the airline company. A precondition for the license was that they have to buy one. All of them had about 500,000 USD – not enough to buy an airline company. Here he tells us something that we all should remember: optimism takes you long way. So, after a bit of research they bumped into AirAsia and went to see the CEO. When they told him that they want to buy the company, the CEO replied: “Ok, you can have it tomorrow.” That took the guys by surprise for sure. But the negotiation about the price was even more surprising.  Fernandes offered 25 cents as a joke, and the CEO replied again: “Ok, you can have it tomorrow.” Among with the airline came 10 million dollars of debt, and the new owners had to sign a contract subject to due diligence. The contract was signed on September 8th, 2001.

Since buying AirAsia with two planes they now operate a company with 180 aircraft. When Fernandes sums up all the awards and numbers over the years, the audience acknowledges the success story with a round of applause. Like many other successful entrepreneurs, he says the success comes from the amazing people and the company culture they have created. Fernandes himself “runs around” in a t-shirt and jeans, and sometimes is mistaken as an illegal immigrant, as he says – causing great outbursts of laughter among the audience. He emphasizes the fact that the biggest asset in your company are the people you have. They are the ones who make the difference between an ordinary company and a very special company.

Still, once a month Fernandes carries bags, once in two months he works in the aircraft cabin, and once in three months he works at the check-in. Wow, what a great way to see what is really happening at the operational level, rather than reading reports in an office!

Fernandes tells about his will to help Malaysian children to educate themselves; for example, he helped 11 boys to go through a flight academy, and now they are all pilots at AirAsia. Those are great success stories as well – you start by carrying bags, four years later you are a 1st officer and six years from that you are a captain in a brand new Airbus. Fernandes gets a huge applause when he tells a story about a girl whom they educated to be a pilot – and now AirAsia employs 42 female pilots. Top that with the fact that AirAsia is the only airline in the world which has Miss Thailand flying for them!

It is hard to believe there’s a man like Fernandes on the stage. I feel like I have known him for a long time. He talks about his crazy marketing campaigns during SARS, “the killer disease”, giving away 10,000 seats to fly to Bali right after the bomb attack – all kinds of things that every other airline company would not do, and did not do at that time. He advises us to remember branding and marketing also when the times are bad. One of the breaking points in AirAsia’s story was the time when they sponsored Manchester United. “That was hard for me, because I hate that club!” says Fernandes. They only had seven planes at that time – but gained a lot of credibility among the other sponsors like Budweiser and Audi. “So, don’t be afraid even if you are a little brand. Sports marketing has been fantastic for AirAsia.”

Fernandes revs it up every now and then by joking about Malaysian businessmen bribing, Sir Richard Branson dressing up as a woman, and him having a good time here in Helsinki with beautiful women and Kossu. He ends his presentation by urging, “Believe the unbelievable, dream the impossible, and never take no for an answer.” The audience immediately jumps up, yelling and giving a standing ovation before Mr. Henkka Hyppönen takes over the cozy conversation with Fernandes as well as letting the audience ask questions.

Believe the unbelievable, dream the impossible, and never take no for an answer.

Hold on! There’s an eager woman waving in the audience, wanting to ask Fernandes a question. Here’s something that in fact made it to the national news:

  • I have an 11-year old daughter. Ever since she was four, she has wanted to be a pilot. Now she runs her own enterprise at Pikku Yrittäjät, a junior enterprise organization. My question is, can I contact you for advice on how to become a pilot?
  • I love your enterprise. Why don’t you and your daughter, on me, fly to Malaysia and she can go visit our training school.

Applause. Yelling. The lady running and screaming towards Fernandes. She jumps on stage, gives a hug to Fernandes who just says that her name is very complicated – and puts his red AirAsia cap on the woman’s hair. The woman walks back to her seat, overcome with joy and gratitude.

Key points from the session:

  1. Believe in your dreams and work hard to make them come true. It is perfectly ok for a 12-year boy to dream about an airline company, a formula 1 team, and a football club – because there is proof that such dreams can come true.
  2. Remove all unnecessary organizational levels. Make it easy for the employees to meet and talk to the management. If you are a manager, work every now and then on the shop floor and you learn so much more about your staff and operations.
  3. It is always a good time for marketing. Even when times are bad, you should market your company and services. Don’t be afraid to do that even if you are a small brand.

Tony Fernandes is a Malaysian entrepreneur and the founder of AirAsia, Tune Group and Caterham F1 Team. For many years, AirAisa has been recognised as the World’s Best Low-Cost Airline. Tony is also 2010 Forbes Asia Businessman of the Year.

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