An Evening with Tony Fernandes (old article, reproduced in solidarity with AirAsia)

My thoughts are with AirAsia, those onboard the missing QZ8501, their loved ones, and everyone who is saddened by this news. I wonder how AirAsia’s flamboyant and charismatic CEO, Dato’ Seri Tony Fernandes, is dealing with this–he calls it his ‘worst nightmare’ in a tweet–but I have a feeling that he is the sort of leader that people could find a measure of comfort in during such a crisis. Someone capable of coming up with solutions, and even in the face of tragic outcomes, he is the kind of leader who is the beacon of hope, providing strategies to restore hope and move forward.

Why do I say this? I do not know him personally, but six years ago, I attended his talk on the subject of branding, during which he shared many inspiring nuggets of wisdom and clever ideas. So this is how I developed an impression of him as an inspiring leader capable of steering his team through even the stormiest of storms.

I wrote about the talk on my now inactive old blog (www.alexischiuling.blogspot.com), so I now reproduce the article here:

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An Evening with Tony Fernandes, 30th of July 2008

Photo copyright belongs to Air Asia Berhad and is used here only for illustrative purpose.

Photo copyright belongs to Air Asia Berhad and is used here only for illustrative purpose.

Clad in light-coloured pants and a dark coat over an open-necked shirt, Tony looked every inch the charismatic CEO that we are used to seeing on the television and print media. He spoke with a slight British twang that surfaced every now and then, presumably due to the years he had spent in the UK, where he met and became good friends with the even more flamboyant Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group.

That aside, Tony was very much an Anak Malaysia (Malaysia’s son), the way he waxed lyrical about dangdut (a traditional Malay music genre featuring upbeat tempos), famous veteran dangdut singer Datuk S.M. Salim and nasyid group Raihan; getting mistaken for a ‘Bangla’ worker at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal when he went to work in casual attire; and offering roti jala (a traditional bread eaten with curry) on their flights (more on this roti jala story later).

Totally at ease in the limelight, he had the audience hanging on to his every word as he matter-of-factly related the Air Asia story – with a good dose of natural humour, tongue-in-cheek remarks and hilarious swipes at his competitors and detractors.

He made us laugh real hard and he fanned the fire in our bellies. Beneath every awe-inspiring, rib-tickling and casual statement, lied the humble passion and daring vision that so drew the masses to the Air Asia spirit.

Even those haughty ‘oh I will never fly Air Asia’ ones had to concede to the Air Asia charm that flowed from this man to the brand. Throughout the talk that lasted more than an hour, the one theme that ran throughout was “nothing is impossible as long as we have the courage to try”.

Coming from the former music executive with zero experience in the airline industry, but had enough courage and passion to acquire Air Asia from HICOM DRB complete with its RM 40 million debt, that message he carried was conviction rather than cliché.

Tony remortgaged his house to raise funds to get the company running, and in 7 years’ time Air Asia had grown from ‘no brand to global brand’; 200 staff to 6, 500 strong; and a company widely criticized to one hugely emulated and recognized. What is his secret?

“We are often our worst enemies. We often say something cannot be done before we even try it.”

There was thick silence as the audience took in the simple and yet profoundly true statement from the one who had been there and done it. And then, in the same breath, he continued: “I have said this many times before all over the world, but I have never had the pleasure of saying it in front of a Chief Minister.” (The Penang Chief Minister, Mr. Lim Guan Eng was also in attendance at the talk).

The Grand Ballroom erupted!

That’s Tony Fernandes for you. That was the first dose of verbal humour from him that evening, and there would be more to come as he took us through a learn and laugh, learn and laugh journey that ended in a fully-maximised Q and A question from so many who wanted a peek into his mind on various issues.

Among the most wonderful ‘transits’ along the whole learn and laugh journey that evening:

On building a genuine ASEAN brand:
We learned, from Tony, that problems are opportunities in disguise. The Air Asia brand, one can say, has been built through many hard times.
The SARS outbreak:
“During the SARS outbreak, we tripled our advertising because that was when our competitors were not doing so and this helped people to remember the Air Asia brand better.”

The Bali bombing:
“We felt we had to do something to help the place as they depended so heavily on tourism. Other airlines were cutting their flights to Bali, but we felt we should do something to help the island, so we gave away 10, 000 free seats which were snapped up in 3 hours. And 10, 000 people came back and told their friends how wonderful Bali still was.”

“So, the moral behind this is, Malaysians are not afraid of bombs, they’re not afraid of SARS – all they need is just free tickets!”
Back to the serious, inspiring note:
“You can always find a way out of problems, you can always market yourself out of a problem.” And that came from the CEO of the airline which is now the 5th largest in Asia, who later cheekily asked,

“And look who’s number 7 and number 8?”

He walked animatedly to the giant screen, pointed to Singapore Airlines and MAS on the chart on display, looked at the laughing audience and flashed his trademark grin.
“And these guys are like 40 years old. We’re only 7.”
Phew, weren’t we having fun!

On using technology and innovation:
“When we started selling tickets on the Internet, everyone said we were crazy, and that it wouldn’t work.”
Well, everyone knows what happened to booking flight tickets on the Internet.
“And we also came up with innovative services like selling hot meals.”
As well as direct flights to destinations that no other airlines ever thought of, such as Bandung and Macau.

On monetizing the brand:
“Once you’ve built a strong brand, then you’d want to start monetizing it. This is what we’ve done by coming up with our Citibank-Air Asia credit card, our insurance for travelers, in-flight magazine for the advertising revenue, as well as our Go Holiday packages”

“We also decided to market our long haul international flights under the brand name Air Asia X to retain the uniformity in branding.”

On attitude:
“Attitude is 50% of the game,” the Dato’ philosophized.
Air Asia definitely has a lot of it, especially when taking on their competitors and detractors.

On Malaysia Airlines, with their World’s Best Cabin Crew?
“We advertise our ‘World’s Best Engineers’, and that got MAS hopping mad because most of our engineers were trained by them!”

On Singapore Airlines, with their famous Singapore Girls?
An Air Asia ad in Singapore goes like this:
“There’s a new girl in town. She’s twice the fun, and half the price.” Well, smacks a little bit of sexism, but you can’t deny the humour – and for Tony’s charm Salt n’ Light’s feminists agreed to let this one go! So, no, we will not write to the Women’s Aid Organisation.

On Tiger Airways, with the SGD1 fare?

Air Asia ran an ad featuring a tiger subdued by tranquilizers, flanked by two Air Asia hostesses and a caption that reads:“Air Asia tames even the wildest tiger with low fares” – on top of their SGD 0.49 offer!

By then the Grand Ballroom was roaring with laughter, and then he took a swipe at MAS’s Tony-bashing (then) CEO, Datuk Idris Jala.
“MAS has Idris Jala, so we decided to sell roti jala on our flights.”

Hahaha, now that’s a winner!

And they were daring enough to take on the Singapore government. When Air Asia coaches were banned from entering Singapore across the Causeway, the cheeky airline ran an ad that read:

“No chewing gum. No smoking. No AirAsia coaches. Thank God low-fare flights are still legal.”

Boy, oh boy. Who says it is tough for Malaysian brands to do well in Singapore? You just need to have the spirit and chutzpah a la Tony Fernandes.

He reiterated, “You can always market and brand yourself out of a problem, be it SARS, bombs or the Singapore government.”

“Never take ‘no’ for an answer. To every problem, there is always a solution.”

Now Air Asia is working on getting the Penang-Singapore route, and we can almost bank on their never-say-die spirit to see this materialize!

Dato’ Seri Tony Fernandes’ talk on “Branding: Jazzing Up Your Business” turned out a huge success with the participants going home entertained, informed and inspired.

In a nutshell, we learned that when you have a dream, even if it is as lofty as starting a low-cost airline, you should not ever let any of the following stop you from pursuing it:

· Lack of experience
· Lack of connections (political ones, especially!)
· Lack of capital (Tony remortgaged his house, remember?)
· Doubt, usually from others (Our dear Dato’ shared that when he told his wife of his high-flying plan, she took a while to stop laughing and then said, “Why don’t you start a roti canai stall?’)
· Fear of failure
“I only had one fear : When we first started, my greatest fear was letting the 254 staff down. The fear would be there somehow, but ultimately, you don’t want to sit there when you’re 65 and say, “I should have done this.”

Wow. We couldn’t agree more. This may sound clichéd’ coming from a lesser person —but when Tony said it, the conviction was so real, it simply reached out and grabbed us by our hearts. Could it be that when Air Asia came up with their tagline “Now, Everyone Can Fly”, they were talking about more than just boarding an airplane?
Thank you, Dato’ Seri, and to our readers and ourselves: Just go for it!

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I hope AirAsia and Tony Fernandes will keep their spirits up, because it is now time for them to remember his own conviction that: “You can always market and brand yourself out of a problem, be it SARS, bombs or the Singapore government.”

My thoughts and prayers will be with the ones affected, especially our neighbour, Indonesia. It has been a trying year for Malaysia, and I hope and believe that we will all pull through.

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