3 business lessons from one of Asia’s top airline moguls

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AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes talks about focus, flying, and failure in his newly released autobiography, "Flying High." Photo by REGINE CABATO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The unassuming Tony Fernandes arrives for the launch in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

There is little to tell that he is the man behind AirAsia, one of Asia's largest airlines, the founder of Tune Group (whose portfolio includes the Epsom College of Malaysia and the London-based football team Queen’s Park Rangers), and one of the richest businessmen in Malaysia.

His shirt has two paper planes on it, for the time he bought the failing airline for less than a dollar. It had only two planes and millions in debt.

Fernandes throws a jacket on for the event. This time, it is not a plane he is seeing off, but his autobiography titled “Flying High.”

Each chapter of his life is accompanied with a song — an ode to his time in the music industry. The businessman, who grew up in Malaysia before completing his studies in London, is self-made. His down-to-earth demeanor and sense of humor keep him, for all his travel, grounded.

Then there is the frank, persistent side of him, one which can get on politicians' nerves as he champions for lower airfares and the democratization of air travel — a cause that has serious effects for development.

Whether you’re a creative or looking to set up your own business, there are lessons to be learned from one of Asia's biggest airline moguls. Here are some tips.

Don’t steal the market, grow your own.

Aspiring businessmen need to "have a product people want," Fernandes writes in “Flying High.” He adds that marketing is key, but it isn't just about advertisement and billboards; it is also presence on social media and public relations.

It is also about good partnerships. In the book, he says: “You can have hundreds of signed contracts but if a real relationship isn’t there you won’t be able to grow your business.”

On growing business, he adds: “We're not taking anyone's market. We're gonna grow the market.”

Since its establishment in 2012, AirAsia has grown to an 11 percent market share in the Philippines, where it carried around four million passengers according to the company’s 2016 report.. When asked if he was intimidated by competitors in the Philippines who have been around longer, he said no.

“We shouldn't be, and neither should they be intimidated by us, because the market is huge. I feel airlines in Asia really waste their time trying to kill each other, as opposed to [focusing] on growing their market,” says Fernandes. “The Philippines is an amazing country with amazing people, and huge potential. We should all be seeing how we can maximize that, working together.”

“I wanna make ASEAN and Asia much more inclusive ... Social media can only go so far. Physically meeting people changes that.” — Tony Fernandes

Be inclusive.

Fernandes, a Malay businessman leaving his footprint in the world, is all about diversity, telling the press that the “world should be inclusive.”

“I think the world has gotten dangerous with polarization of race and religion, and as discrimination is coming back, my life has been all about inclusivity. I don't care what race, creed, color, religion you are, where you're from. We're all humans … We should all embrace each other,” he says.

One of the touching moments he remembers is watching a video that gathered a multinational cabin crew. He says the airline helps in connectivity and “bringing people together.”

“I wanna make ASEAN and Asia much more inclusive,” says Fernandes. “Social media can only go so far. Physically meeting people changes that.”

Fernandes doesn't only mean inclusivity in employment. He is also all about accessibility of services for customers, which is why he's been a major figure in democratizing airfare. He writes, for one, that "price is product."

The belief extends to distribution. He says that the music industry's slow adaptation to the shift online was one of the reasons he left.

“You have to make it easy for people to buy your product once they know about it,” he writes.

It's also one of the reasons why he has been pushing for governments to lift exit tax — even in the Philippines.

“I think that's old-fashioned and we should find a way to replace the exit tax …The exit tax, in some cases, is more than our airfare,” he says. “So I think [the] Philippines would earn much more in the long run by getting rid of it.”

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Finally, Fernandes says that implementation is the last piece of the puzzle, and it has to be quick, focused, and run by the right people. He cautions against being "too spreadsheet-driven" and "analysis by paralysis."

"Ideas are great, talk is cheap, but results are all that matter," he says.

"Too many great ideas don’t get out because the implementation isn’t right. You have to move quickly because otherwise the idea dies. Of course, there can also be problems if you move too fast and you make a mistake, so there’s a balance to strike," he adds.

In a turn from common advice in Asian culture, Fernandes advises that failure is necessary.

“I've had many failures during this book, but I don't regret any of those failures. I think too many Asians, we worry about failure, so we don't do things,” he says..

“I wanted people to see that life isn't always fantastic. There are some very dark days. But you can cope with it, and you can come back. Dealing with adversity is part of life ... That's what makes life good as well. If everything is fantastic the whole time, then you don't appreciate things.”


“Flying High” retails at ₱960 and is available on board AirAsia flights and via bigdutyfree.com.