Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: AirAsia Tony Fernandes' mellower side

Luck has played a part in Tony Fernandes' life, but so has being optimistic, he says

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AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes talks to The Straits Times Executive Editor Sumiko Tan about his greatest achievement at the company's helm.

When AirAsia Group chief executive Tony Fernandes was 15 and at boarding school in Britain, he got a phone call from his father in Kuala Lumpur telling him that his mother was very, very ill.

"But my father was a negative, pessimistic kind of guy, so I didn't take it too seriously," he says.

"I called up every day and then one day, he was on the phone really crying, and he said that she's gone and, wow, it was like my whole world kind of collapsed."

His mother, Ena, had died of a kidney ailment that affected her heart. She was 48 and a gregarious, astute businesswoman. He was very close to her, especially as he was an only child until a sister came along when he was 12.

"It was my O-level year, so my dad said there's no point coming back. So I took a few days off school," he says.

He adds with a wry smile: "I was an averagely good sportsman and then suddenly after she died, I became an amazing sportsman, I mean, really super amazing. And yeah, it was an odd period of my life."

We're sitting at The Lobby Lounge at the Shangri-La Hotel and Tony Fernandes is recounting all this without much emotion.

Mr Tony Fernandes and his partners bought an ailing two-plane airline in Malaysia in 2001, and transformed it into one of Asia's largest low-cost carriers. AirAsia's success has altered the way full-cost carriers operate. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

I'm disturbed, though, at the thought of a 15-year-old having to handle news like that alone.

You didn't return to KL for your mum's funeral, I seek to clarify.

"No. He told me not to. He's probably right," he says of his doctor father.

"I've never been much into funerals since then. I went to my dad's, obviously... but I don't even know where my mother's grave is. But I think once you're gone, you're gone, so you've got to move on, but memory doesn't change. I don't feel going there means anything."

You must have been really lost with your mum gone, I say.

"A little bit but you kind of get used to it, you have to just move on, right?"

But he tells me later: "It was very hard coming home for the first holiday because my life, my house, was so full of life and when she died, there was no one there anymore, you know, it was really quiet, it was really... It's kind of weird. And yeah, it was difficult but..." He trails off.

I'm expecting someone loud, brash and showy when I meet Tony Fernandes.

The 53-year-old Malaysian is, after all, the man who disrupted Asia's air travel industry way before the word disruption became popular.

Back in 2001, he and his partners bought an ailing two-plane airline in Malaysia and turned it around into one of Asia's largest low-cost carriers. AirAsia now has more than 200 aircraft and flies to over 120 destinations.

The carrier altered the way full-cost carriers like Singapore Airlines operate, forcing them into the budget market. It also changed lives by allowing more people to fly.

Along the way, he became the ebullient face - and mouth - of the brand, a role he relished as he went around in his red AirAsia cap speaking out against regulators, governments and incumbents.

He also made headlines with his purchase of English football club Queens Park Rangers and his foray into Formula One racing.

In person, he's different from his public persona. During our 80-minute chat, he comes across likeable and funny, even if one senses a simmering Malaysia versus Singapore rivalry lacing much of what he says.

When he takes a dig - and he does like to make sport of people and things that have stood in the way of AirAsia - it is cheeky rather than cocky, charming rather than condescending. He's also at times contemplative, maybe because of where we are at.

Mr Fernandes and his mother Ena. She was an astute businesswoman who died when he was 15. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TONY FERNANDES

Because of his packed schedule, he can meet only for a drink at 5pm, and the topic of his mother comes up when I ask if he has memories of Singapore growing up.

Oh yes, he says, gesturing around him, the Shangri-La was probably his first memory of Singapore.

He and his mum used to stay here when she came over several times a year for Tupperware conventions. He has vivid memories of the hotel and its doormen.

His mother - her surname was also Fernandez but with a z - was an energetic, outgoing music teacher who started a kindergarten called Tinkerbell.

She then became a successful Tupperware dealer - he has said before that Tupperware paid for his education - before moving on to sell Pyrex and perfume from the company Perfumes of the Orient.

He was seven or eight when he first came to Singapore with her. Changi Airport wasn't open yet, so it was Paya Lebar Airport. He remembers eating fried ice cream and her buying Persian carpets from Qureshi's in Orchard Road. Singapore had colour TV before Malaysia. "We were like, wow, colour TV, and you had more English channels."

They flew on Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), which later became Malaysian Airline System (MAS), now Malaysia Airlines, and Singapore Airlines.

"When they split, I used to always argue with my mum not to take SIA and fly on MAS. I was very patriotic. And it's so funny, now MAS will do its best to screw me, but I was very proud of MAS at the time."

His father was from Goa in India, and trained as an engineer, then architect before becoming a medical doctor.

"My dad was a fantastic guy but he was not outwardly going like my mum," he says. "I had a very contrasting family. My mother was a raging capitalist. She would sell ice to an Eskimo if she could. My father was a very left-wing doctor. She made a lot of money... but he was never driven by profit."

His mother was so gregarious that when American singer Ray Charles visited KL, she called up his hotel and invited him to attend a party at their Damansara house. Other musicians like The Ink Spots and Winifred Atwell were guests at some point, too.

He studied at international school Alice Smith in KL - hence his lack of proficiency in Malay - before being sent to Epsom College in Surrey when he was 12, hence the British accent.The first few weeks there were bad but he adapted.

In retrospect, boarding school was where he got his first taste of being a "disruptor".

He loved football and discovered to his horror that it wasn't played there. Instead, the boys played rugby. He grew to love rugby and also played hockey and cricket, but he wasn't about to give up football. He started the school's first football league where the boys used rugby posts as goal posts. "We had very high scoring games," he laughs.

"Sport was a big part of my life," he says. "Hard to see in this body but in a different body, I was quite good at sports."

Boarding school "made me believe I could do anything I wanted to do, just put my mind to it", he says.

It also exposed him to the West. "So I believe you can put me anywhere in the world and I'll get on with people, I'll find a way."

After his mother died, their house in KL was sold to fund his education. His younger sister, he says with regret, did not get the British education he did. She is a lawyer working in AirAsia and they are close. His father died when he was 28.

He did accountancy at the London School of Economics and worked in finance at Richard Branson's Virgin Records. This was followed by a decade-long career with Warner Music, which took him back to Malaysia. Music remains a big love - "I have 10,000 CDs" - and he likes dancing.

It was in Malaysia that he decided to chase his ambition of owning an airline. He has always loved airports and planes, and remembers the thrill of waiting for the flight number of his mother's plane to be displayed on information boards.

The success of AirAsia has seen him feted like a rock star in some places. Does it tire you to do all these interviews, I wonder.

"To be honest, sometimes when I'm just about to do it, it is like, oh no. But once I get into the thing and I see people's faces and I make people laugh, then it gets better," he says.

"I suppose in some ways I'm like a performer. I can imagine Prince coming out there and singing Purple Rain for the hundredth thousandth time. Must have dreaded it, but when you get on there and... you're making people happy, you kind of get that energy back."

He's divorced and close to his 23-year-old daughter, a graphic designer in Britain, and 16-year-old son who is studying in KL.

His daughter, like his mum, is "a good talker" and he recounts with glee how, at her birthday party, "the two most drunk people were me and her. Both of us had to be carried out".

AirAsia has made him very rich and last year, Forbes ranked him the 37th richest man in Malaysia with a fortune of US$345 million (S$476 million).

He doesn't think he leads a particularly lavish lifestyle but neither does he make a show of being prudent. He's wearing a cheap Uniqlo T-shirt, Marks & Spencer trousers but expensive Church's shoes. He reports that a friend says he "dresses like a hobo".

He has a Mercedes-Benz GLE and a BMW IA. Someone tried to sell him a house with parking space for 10 cars. "Well, that's a waste, I have only two, and they didn't believe me," he laughs. "My business partner has about 20, I think. But nothing wrong there, he loves cars, right?"

Home in KL is an apartment of maybe 5,000 sq ft, and while he does enjoy a good drink, he finds it laughable when people make a show of things.

"All that smell the wine. Just pour it, man. I appreciate good wine. You can taste good wine, right, but you can also taste good chocolate... I'm not trying to give you a show of this but what you see is what you get. We're fairly simple people."

Does he feel obliged to have simple tastes because he runs a budget airline? He pooh-poohs this and points out he also flies first class, including on rival Singapore Airlines.

Ah, Singapore Airlines, which two weeks ago announced it was reviewing its business in the wake of its first quarterly loss in five years. Any views on how SIA could fix its woes? He shoots back with a guffaw: "Very clearly I'm not going to tell The Straits Times."

But he does tell. "It's very easy to solve. They try to be in everything. It's a normal monopoly who thinks the only way they can survive is by going into all the markets that they're not into."

The answer is to focus on what you're good at. "Brands who try to do too many things end up screwing themselves, right? You don't see Shangri-La having a budget brand. Well, they have Traders. That's hardly a budget brand, and it's not far away from their DNA - just the rooms are small and they don't have as much amenities."

AirAsia has had its challenges, the worst being the 2014 crash of Flight QZ8501 that killed 162 people on board a flight from Surabaya to Singapore. That is something hard to get over.

I ask if he thinks he's mellower and he says "definitely I think a little bit more before I shoot my mouth off. But I think my mouth has got me to where I am as well".

He knows he's had an exceptional life and while a privileged childhood and luck played a big part, so has being optimistic, he feels.

"Sometimes when you're optimistic, good luck finds you. Does that kind of make sense? No doubt I was born lucky. And I suppose my mother would always say to me, 'Be nice to people, it will always come back to you'."

When he flew into Changi Airport the night before, he looked at the screens and saw AirAsia's flights among other budget airlines'. He thought: "Wow, we contributed to this revolution."

It also brought him back to an earlier time. "It made me think back to my mum on MSA arriving in Paya Lebar," he says.

If she were around to see his success, he says with a laugh, "my mum would be like, she'll be throwing a party every day, because it's unbelievable".

Twitter @STsumikotan

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