Tony Fernandes is a household name among Malaysians courtesy of his involvement in the music industry under Warner Music for more than 10 years before moving on to purchase AirAsia as his first step into the airline industry. His story has inspired many, having bought the company for only RM1 and then transforming it into one of the strongest industry players worldwide.
And it only took him a year to clear off all its debts and break even.
Moving on to its 16th year of operation, the low-cost airline has grown from 2 planes to 220, from 250 employees to 20,000, and currently fly 65 million passengers in a year. This tremendous growth is what gained him the title of “Disruptor of the Decade” by Wild Digital 2017 as he not only disrupted the airline industry but e-commerce as a whole as well.
Of course, this type of success is not something gained in a mere day or two. During his Fireside Chat moderated by Catcha Group CEO Patrick Grove, Tony shared three life lessons he managed to pick up throughout his many years of being an entrepreneur that have helped shape him into the multi-millionaire and businessman he is today.
Lesson 1: “If you have a good product, people will find a way to buy it.”
In Tony’s eyes, the internet was his saviour.
The catalyst AirAsia used to leap ahead of its competitors was the option for customers to buy flight tickets in advance and the company’s online platform became a direct channel for the customers. Although nowadays it has become a norm to find businesses conducted online, it was not the case when AirAsia was just starting out.
“Everyone used to say the internet wouldn’t work. In fact, no one in Southeast Asia was really using the internet platform to sell flight tickets. So I took inspiration from international couriers and knowing Malaysians, I knew it could work. If you hand them a good deal, they’ll find a way,” said Tony.
So despite the troubling reality that consumers were only slowly getting accustomed to using the internet to purchase goods, AirAsia decided to go ahead and offer their service online which heavily attracted people.
Tony shared an experience when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus became an epidemic in Malaysia that they caught their big break. At that time, everyone became cautious about flying so various airlines hiked up prices of flight tickets. Tony then decided that was the best time to build his brand because no one else was advertising.
“I told my team to drop the fares because knowing Malaysians, if you put a fare low enough, they’ll risk their lives and will find some way to buy them. It was also thanks to our marketing team for turning a bleak situation into something good that we managed to give our customers a good product at an affordable rate,” said Tony.
Lesson 2: “Chances don’t come often so if you find them, grab them.”
Prior to his career in music and the airline industry, Tony was actually an accountant after graduating with an accounting degree from the London School of Economics. His first big job was working for Virgin Atlantic, a British airline, as an auditor before becoming the financial controller for Virgin Records in London. Both companies were owned by Richard Branson.
Initially however, Tony shared that he was rejected during his interview with Virgin. He was hit with a stroke of luck when he bumped into Richard himself and made one of the biggest decisions of his life, which was to approach Richard instead of shying away.
“As Malaysians, we analyse too much. We dilly-dally and ask around before making a decision. Don’t wait. If a chance comes by you, take it. Chances don’t happen often and you may end up regretting it if you shy away from prime opportunities,” said Tony.
It was this bold decision to speak up to Richard that got Tony hired and later on form a bond strong enough for them to start AirAsia X together.
Tony also touched a bit on his decision to purchase his own football club called Queens Park Rangers. He mentioned two of his passions in life which are planes and football. This pushed him into wanting to hold a stake in these two industries which he managed to make a reality, despite realising it wouldn’t be easy.
“You really only have one life so I believe in living it to the fullest. So when I was presented with an opportunity to purchase a football team, I just took it,” said Tony.
Lesson 3: “You have to be good in your own country first.”
Their ground roots started out in Malaysia but Tony said AirAsia has always seen massive opportunities in ASEAN long before most other airlines did. This is why the company made decisions that strengthened their presence throughout the world and mark their name up as one of the airlines that flew to rarer places.
“I’ve ventured in Bandung before so we decided to have flights going there which back then, no one did. Not even Indonesian airlines. Now, we have 32 flights a day to Bandung and many other airlines also offer flights there. So ASEAN definitely shows great potential, along with China and India. I’m proud to say AirAsia now flies to over 60 countries and counting,” said Tony.
Having said that, Tony said commercial success overseas is obviously an achievement but it becomes a challenge when businesses don’t first see success locally. He talked about the crucial aspect for businesses to conquer their homeland market first before expanding.
So before AirAsia even thought on expanding overseas, Tony said the team took their time to understand the local market and ensure it fit the total addressable market there before even making the next move of flying internationally.
“Entrepreneurs out there need to remember that your home country should be the first place in your thoughts to conquer. Neighbouring countries can come later, it’s the locals that need to prioritised. It’s a key recipe to success,” said Tony.