“If someone had told me when I was twelve that I was going to own an airline, a Formula One team and an English football club, I’d have said, ‘What drugs are you taking? Please give me some of them’,” writes Anthony Francis Fernandes, better known as Tony Fernandes, in his new autobiography, Flying High. Decades later, he’d achieve all that—acquire a tiny airline and transform it into an international business carrying 70 million passengers a year, stand on the starting grid at a Grand Prix with his own Formula One car, and take over an English football club and help it reach the Premier League after a 15-year absence from the top flight. But in doing so, he never needed any drugs. The 53-year-old business tycoon’s latest book is a story of resilience and perseverance, and all that it takes to reach the pinnacle of success. It shows how some disruptive business decisions and successful leaps of faith, besides being bold and learning from mistakes, can turn one’s dreams into reality. And it also, to put it in Fernandes’ own words, makes for a pretty unlikely and wildly unpredictable story. Although the book’s title gives the impression that Fernandes will begin his story from his takeover of AirAsia, then a heavily indebted subsidiary of a Malaysian government-owned conglomerate, Flying High takes off from Epsom College in Surrey, England, where a 12-year-old Fernandes was sent to study and later pursue a career in medicine and become a doctor like his father.
Fernandes learnt some of the core business principles that he runs his companies by while at school. While his interest in music gave him a creative advantage and strength that some people lack, reading about great men and understanding their lives during the weekends taught him to believe in a multicultural workforce based on meritocracy and to value persistence and innovation in people around him and in the company. Epsom also taught him a lot about belonging, friendship and teamwork, all of which he’s tried to champion in his life in business.
Epsom was also the foundation to many of Fernandes’ career moves. The seed for a low-budget carrier, AirAsia, for instance, was planted at the school, where he often longed to be back home in Malaysia and see his parents and friends, but was unable to do so due to the high cost of a plane ticket. “Well, I’m going to make it cheap,” he’d say. Several years later, this innocent claim would turn out to be prophetic, as Fernandes would go on to buy over an ailing AirAsia from DRB-HICOM, a Malaysian government-owned conglomerate. With no experience whatsoever in the aviation sector, this wasn’t going to be easy. But before that came an initial career with Warner and a subsequent move to Richard Branson’s Virgin Communications, only to move back to Malaysia in 1992 to dabble in a career in the music industry (he became the youngest MD of Warner Music, Malaysia, at the age of 28 years).
AirAsia comprised just two Boeing 737-300 jet aircraft then, besides a handful of routes and debts running into $11 million. Also, it was the time when the 9/11 tragedy had shaken the world, especially the aviation industry. Oil prices were going through the roof and, in almost every sense, starting an airline at that moment seemed like a horrible idea. But deep inside, Fernandes knew he had to do it. Within a year of his takeover, AirAsia had broken even and cleared all its debts. Its initial public offering in November 2004 was oversubscribed by 130%. Within just 12 years, Fernandes built an award-winning, low-cost airline that currently operates scheduled domestic and international flights to more than 165 destinations spanning 25 countries. One of Fernandes’ biggest success mantras has been to get out and do all the different jobs that concern his business, or walk around his head office to know his staff, understand their jobs, frustrations and fears, and gain their respect. This is something that “no reports, spreadsheets or interviews can replace”, he writes.
The later part of the book chronicles the triumphs and challenges that Fernandes faced at the helm of the English football club, Queens Park Rangers. He also talks about his experience with Formula One that “ended up in court, created a team that didn’t do well and in the process lost a lot of money”. Although it was considered a disaster, Fernandes writes, he doesn’t regret it for a second. “I learned so much about best practice and technology, much of which has been fed back into AirAsia,” he writes. There are also several moving passages in the book, such as the tragedy that occurred in 2014 when the AirAsia flight QZ8501, with 155 passengers travelling from Surabaya to Singapore, disappeared from the radar. He described the event as “an airline CEO’s worst nightmare”. In terms of principles, Fernandes borrows a lot from billionaire entrepreneur Branson and his company Virgin, where he had landed his first major job at Virgin Communications. Like Branson, Fernandes feels he is unusual in the airline business, as he is by nature a marketeer and brand creator. “That style of going with your gut—thinking that as long as someone fits the culture, they will find a role—is something I have followed in business,” writes Fernandes. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence then that both their autobiographies (Branson recently came out with Finding My Virginity, a sequel to his first autobiography, Losing My Virginity) have been published around the same time. And like Branson’s book, Fernandes’ Flying High, too, scores high on the readability factor.
Kunal Doley is a freelancer