Inspirational Lessons From Tony Fernandes

Book Review – Tony Fernandes: Flying High: My Story: From AirAsia to QPR. Penguin, 2017.
He has seemingly made the impossible, possible; and has kept his humility and unabating zest to fly higher – as revealed through his candid memoir.

It was fitting that I was flying high on a United Airlines flight to San Francisco when I read the new book by Tony Fernandes, group CEO of AirAsia, as he told of his journey from his low-cost airline to QPR (Queen’s Park Rangers, for those who may not be familiar with football).

Flying High: My Story: From AirAsia to QPR is a great inflight read – it’s easy to digest; it uses simple, clear language to tell a linear narrative; and it did feel like I had Fernandes sitting next to me, telling me his story. I finished it in one sitting – quite an accomplishment these days when the human attention span is said to be now less than that of a goldfish’s eight seconds.

While I had known bits and bobs about his story, it was interesting to have the layers peeled back on a man who, through a combination of luck, talent, courage, audacity and persistence, has somehow not only lived out his dreams, but went one better.

He wanted to be a pilot, he built an airline; he wanted to be a racing car driver, he bought a Formula One team; he wanted to be a footballer, he became chairman of QPR

His love for music also comes through in the book, with each chapter having a song choice that influenced that period of his life. I could almost hear each song played out as I read the book.

Here are the lessons I took from Flying High:

1. Dreams and ideas form at an early stage

While studying in England, he missed home and his parents. Airfares were too expensive for frequent flights home. When his mother died, he couldn’t be there. He wanted to make flying cheaper, especially for long haul. His original idea for AirAsia was to have long-haul flights to the UK – an idea shot down by Conor McCarthy, formerly of Ryanair, who asked him how many people lived in Malaysia. When Fernandes said 27 million, McCarthy said, “Just go set up a low-cost carrier in Malaysia that looks just like the models in Europe; stop trying to invent something new.

2. Be prepared to listen and to change your idea – just store it away until the time is right

Be smart enough to know what you don’t know, and listen to those with more experience. That advice from McCarthy was critical, but Fernandes kept the long haul idea close to his heart. AirAsia X is the result.

3. One moment can change your life. Grab that opportunity

Fernandes loved music and he wanted to work for Virgin. His interview hadn’t gone well, but at the Virgin office foyer, he saw Richard Branson walk in. “It was a Sliding Doors moment – my life could take one of two directions depending on how I dealt with him.” He struck up a conversation, and Branson was sufficiently intrigued to arrange a coffee meeting. A month later, Fernandes was working for Virgin TV.

4. Be different

Working as an accountant in Virgin, it was hard to get noticed. Fernandes found a way to approach presentations differently, got noticed and rose up the ranks. A simple move, but it takes courage when you’re young and starting out to be different when everyone’s been doing things the same way for so long.

5. A great co-founder is gold; control or wealth

It is clear that Fernandes would not have been able to do what he has done without Kamarudin “Din” Meranun, whom he met while he was working for Warner Music. Din was on the other side of the negotiating table during a deal. “Next time we do a deal, I want you on my side of the table,” Fernandes told Din.

And true enough, it happened. It was Din’s decision to say no to a 10% stake requested by DRB-HICOM in the early days of setting up AirAsia. “I had been quite happy to give it to them, but he realised that it meant we wouldn’t be fully autonomous. That’s why we work so well together – he sees things that I don’t, and vice versa.”

Therein lies the classic founder’s dilemma – control or wealth. It is clear which path the two partners chose from the start.

6. Even when the feared happens, honesty will get you through

He couldn’t have picked a worse timing for a launch – AirAsia flew its first flight right after September 11, 2001, when everyone had just witnessed aircrafts being turned into weapons of mass destruction. But planes became cheaper as a result.

Fernandes talks about going through crisis after crisis, but clearly, his biggest fear – the unknown – happened with the QZ8501 crash. It’s an emotional chapter as Fernandes reveals the physical reaction he had when he first heard the news and the tears he shed through the process. “My philosophy … is that you should always be transparent and honest. If you do something wrong, you hold your hand up, apologise, do what it takes to make it right and move on. This applies to tragedies as much as it does to smaller things.”

7. Disrupt for your own good, not to make it bad for someone

“Disruption isn’t about destroying the competition, it’s about changing the market to your advantage.”

8. You can only fly as high as the people around you, treat them as friends

This applies not only to your team, but your partners and everyone who helps your business. “Some people made a distinction between work culture and social friends but I don’t really see the need: I count most people I work with as friends.” In Fernandes’ case, his teammates and business partners are instrumental allies in his achievements.

9. The competition is yourself

Fernandes talks about the culture he’s built at AirAsia. “We don’t care about competitors. Our competitors are ourselves. The day our ego gets the better of us, the day we don’t focus on our costs, that’s the day we have to worry.”

He speaks about the importance of internal branding. “If the staff understand, support and enhance your ideals, you’re 50 percent of the way there.”

10. There’s life after what you’ve built, you just have to know when to quit

At 53, Fernandes has reached a stage of his life where he’s clearly asking questions of himself. Relating a conversation he had with Formula One legend, Nico Rosberg, he said, “Apart from being an incredible driver and an honest, straightforward guy, there’s another reason he’s such an inspiration to me: he quit at the top.”

He doesn’t say he’s quitting, but it’s clear: “[I]t did make me think carefully about the future of AirAsia whenever Din and I decide the time is right.”

From the book, I am guessing a talk show could be imminent, not to mention the second season of The Apprentice and other projects close to his heart such as the AirAsia Foundation.

Here’s to flying higher.

Penang-born Yeoh Siew Hoon is the founder of WIT, a media and events company specialising in online travel. She loves to write and she loves to travel. And oh yes, she loves gadgets.

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