How I Made It

The skill that helped AirAsia's CEO turn a $0.26 airline into a billion-dollar business

Tony Fernandes, chief executive officer of AirAsia.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

The CEO of leading low-cost airline AirAsia has proven himself a master of transformation.

After building a successful career as a top exec at Warner Music, Tony Fernandes decided to pack it all in to try his hand at the airline industry in 2001. Within a year of purchasing the ailing Malaysian carrier for one ringgit (then about 26 cents), he turned the business around and returned it to profitability.

In 2018, the business saw revenues of 10.6 billion Malaysian ringgit (around $2.58 billion).

But when asked the greatest skill he possesses as a leader, the 54-year-old insists on one thing: His ability to find great people.

"I think my greatest strength, if I have one, is finding great people," Fernandes shared at a recent finance conference in Singapore, Money 2020. In 2018, AirAsia was voted the world's best low-cost carrier for the tenth year running by air transport research firm Skytrax.

Most entrepreneurs think they know it all, but you have to listen to all the others around you.
Tony Fernandes
Founder and CEO of AirAsia

Since AirAsia's early days, Fernandes has grown his team by more than 100 times from a staff of 200 and two planes, to an international network of 20,000 running a fleet of 250 aircraft.

In doing so, he said he prioritized finding team players with good communication skills, while also looking for people with a strong sense of purpose.

"I look for people who are hungry," Fernandes said. "If you look at my team, there's a lot of people who didn't make it or want to prove something."

That skill came in especially useful when Fernandes was looking for a business partner to head up his latest venture, BigPay — AirAsia's new mobile payment app.

Christopher Davison, co-founder and group chief executive officer of BigPay speaks during the Money20/20 Asia Conference in Singapore, on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

Fernandes said he was struck by the grit and determination of serial entrepreneur Christopher Davison when he met him in a bar in London — so much so that he decided to take him on as the BigPay's co-founder and group CEO.

However, finding good people is only one part of a leader's job. Knowing how to keep them is another thing entirely, Fernandes noted. To do that, he said he focuses especially on three things: transparency, appreciation and giving staff the ability to grow.

"Many companies don't realize the value of their people," Fernandes said, noting that his is one of the only airline of its size that doesn't have a labor union — a group typically formed by staff to fight for employee rights.

"I think we've been good at recognizing that," he added.

For Fernandes, that also means dressing casually and enabling direct communication lines between him and his staff. Most days he wakes up to hundreds of messages from his staff, he said.

"Most entrepreneurs think they know it all," said Fernandes, "but you have to listen to all the others around you."

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This airport will cost $12 billion to make — take a look inside
This airport will cost $12 billion to make