Tony Fernandes has worn many hats over his decades of career. And if the AirAsia Group CEO (and former host of The Apprentice Asia) ever finds himself dissatisfied with a signature look, he'll invent a new one. “You have to keep renewing yourself,” says Fernandes. "You are as good as tomorrow." This philosophy underpins Fernandes' entire career trajectory. Before launching what is now one of the world's most successful low-cost airlines, Fernandes was an accountant, working briefly for Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Communications. He then reinvented himself in the music world, where he was a senior executive at Warner Music in Malaysia. Fernandes' latest reinvention is his biggest and most complex. He is co-founder and chairman of Tune Group, a conglomerate of subsidiaries in the hospitality, automotive, financial services, education, media and telecommunications industries.
And he's the employee email database head of AirAsia, a no-frills, budget airline that has revolutionized travel in Southeast Asia. After buying the then-bankrupt airline for the shocking sum of 24 US cents, Fernandes grew the brand to a net worth of over $1.5 billion.. AirAsia is now Asia's fourth largest airline, behind major Chinese carriers (in 2017 AirAsia carried over 90 million passengers), and it has recently embarked on an ambitious program that will see the airline transform into a travel technology company. To hear Fernandes say it, two main factors differentiate AirAsia from other companies. For starters, the company has always embraced digitization. And second, the organization is built on inclusivity and creating a great work culture. Here's how Fernandes leveraged those strengths to build a business no one thought possible.
Chase a childhood dream In 2001, during Fernandes' decade-plus stint in the music business, digital advancements began to threaten deeply entrenched industry standards. Fernandes spotted an opportunity, but his colleagues weren't so keen on the digital revolution. "Napster had arrived and Spotify had just started, and I was like, 'Wow, this is super exciting for the music industry,'" Fernandes says. "But I was a lonely voice." No one at Warner Music or Time Warner Inc. (where Fernandes was working at the time) thought it was a good idea. “They thought the Internet would destroy music,” says Fernandes. “My premise was that we can't hold back the technology and it was a fantastic distribution model to create more revenue. »But his vision didn't gain traction, and when Time Warner merged with AOL, he decided to bid farewell to his career in the music industry.