Serial optimist seizes the day

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 4, 2013

Barely two years ago, Mr Azran Osman-Rani was a 40-year-old who could not swim.

But that small detail was not going to derail his plan to complete a triathlon. So the seasoned runner - who has finished about 15 full marathons - went out to hire not one, but three swimming instructors.

"The first one taught me how to put my head under water, blow bubbles and not panic," says the chief executive of AirAsia X (AAX), the Malaysian budget carrier's long-haul airline.

The second taught him how to swim in open water, and the third - a former national swimmer - helped him conquer the terror which engulfed him when he attempted his first triathlon in March last year.

"I hyperventilated because I was jostling with so many people, and there were all these giant ships. And when I looked down, the water was really deep," he says.

But he survived, not just to tell the tale but to complete four more triathlons. Last month, he placed 27th among 215 male participants in the 40 to 49 age category in the Port Dickson International Triathlon.

And this December, he has his sights set on an Ironman event - where participants must complete a 3.86km swim, a 180.25km bicycle ride and a 42.2km run - in Western Australia.

"When I do something, I want to be very good at it," says Mr Azran, who was in town recently to give a talk organised by the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) Professional Development. "It's just how I am."

This determined streak and a big dose of serendipity explain his colourful career.

"I never practised a day of engineering," says the electrical engineering graduate of Stanford University in the United States. Instead, with a master's in management science from the same university, he made his mark first in management consulting and business development before heading the team that launched AAX in 2007.

The airline - which flies to 15 destinations across Asia, Australia and the Middle East - started with one aircraft but now has 15. Revenue grew from RM230.7 million (S$90.2 million) in 2008 to almost RM2 billion last year.

Last month, it raised RM998 million in Malaysia's biggest initial public offering (IPO) this year.

Carpe diem - Latin for "seize the day" - sums up his attitude to life.

"Opportunities would come, and I would just grab them," says the disarmingly bald-headed honcho who wears his self-assurance like a sharp suit.

"My parents gave me a big advantage. I grew up in an environment where I was allowed to speak up and talk and be exposed to adults," says the eldest of three children of two former university professors. "They never told me I could not do things."

Wired with a strong distaste for rote learning and the humdrum, he heeded the advice of some of his university seniors to join a consulting company after graduating from Stanford in the mid-1990s.

"They told me that I would not be stuck doing the same thing, but different projects in different industries," says Mr Azran. His younger sister is a research analyst, while his brother is a Petronas executive in Uzbekistan.

After graduating in the mid-1990s, he joined consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Singapore and later, McKinsey.

Those were heady days in Asia. His job let him work in various countries and sectors, from banking and telcos to oil and gas.

In 2001, he uprooted his wife - a former broadcast journalist and political researcher - and baby boy, moving the family to Seoul, and was so buzzed by the vibrant mergers and acquisitions scene there that he asked for a permanent transfer.

But intervention came in the form of a phone call from McKinsey in Singapore. The company needed him for a project in Malaysia, to turn the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange - renamed Bursa Malaysia - into a public listed entity.

He developed a close relationship with Bursa's former executive chairman Mohammed Azlan Hashim, who then offered him a job to handle business development at the exchange.

"He threw the national service card at me, and said, 'By the way, you're also getting a 50 per cent pay cut.'"

He signed up, even though the pay cut meant settling for a "tiny Proton Wira".

"Sometimes, it's not about the pay or the job but the people you work with," he says, describing Datuk Azlan Hashim as someone who amazed him with his dedication and passion.

Not long after the latter left, Mr Azran left too, for satellite broadcast operator Astro, which had just raised RM2 billion during its IPO in 2003.

"I didn't know anything about technology, media and entertainment, but people had enough faith in me so I jumped," he says, adding that the company wanted to go global and start businesses in Indonesia, China and India.

If he was looking for a challenge, he got it.

"In Indonesia, for instance, besides negotiating shareholder agreements with business partners, I had to hire 450 people, start five Indonesian cable channels, launch a national sales and distribution network and build a broadcast centre in 10 months."

Licensing and shareholding issues resulted in a messy, drawn-out legal battle between Astro and Lippo in Indonesia, which is still not resolved. "One of the saddest things I had to do was to wind down the business I had built and retrench more than 400 people I had hired."

In 2007, another phone call came. This time, AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes wanted him to help start a standalone, long-haul budget carrier. It was a challenge both risky and daunting because this was a sector with a less than sterling history. Failures include Britain-based Laker Airways which went bankrupt in 1982 and, more recently in 2008, Oasis Hong Kong Airlines.

The opportunity to make his mark in aviation was, however, too tempting to resist. But even before he could strap himself in, things got bumpy.

"When we started in 2007 and made some orders for airplanes, a lot of banks were willing to lend us money because there was a lot of liquidity, and aircraft financing generally tends to be a lucrative business because it is secured on assets which are global."

But the financial crisis of 2008 saw the collapse of the banking system. "The people who were courting us ran away," he says.

For one year, AAX worked with only one aircraft.

"Without planes, you are not going to grow or survive," he says.

Fortunately, it managed to wrangle a pitch with an export credit agency in Europe. Together with Air Asia's founders, Mr Fernandes and Datuk Kamarudin Meranun, he flew to London.

"I made the presentation. It was the pitch of a lifetime because if they didn't buy it, we were screwed. Game over."

He must have made a convincing case because the approval came, albeit an agonising six weeks later. Since then, he and his team have beavered away at making AAX work.

He sums up the challenge thus: "You've got to somehow find a way to have a much lower unit cost than the big boys."

Among other things, the airline did it through agile aircraft rotation and scheduling planes to maximise their use.

"We get 16 or 17 hours more a day for buying the same brand-new plane. That gives us 30 per cent more use. We arrive early in the morning, we fly back early in the morning. We also have more than 30 per cent more seats so even when I'm priced at 50 per cent less, in one year, I get the same kind of revenue," he explains, adding that the aircraft also makes money through fuel management and sales of food and beverages.

There were costly missteps along the way. Specially commissioned reclining seats failed. Video screens fitted on all seats made the planes heavier, burning up more fuel. These exercises meant writing off a hefty US$15 million (S$19 million).

There were other bumps such as the cancellation of services to London and Paris because of soaring taxes and higher fuel prices.

"Europe went into a recession and everyone was losing money on flights to Europe. When you operate in a market which is no longer working, you have to be disciplined and deploy the capital to where the market works. The tough decisions we made are the same ones which have allowed us to go on our listing," he says.

Now a father of three boys aged five to 14, he describes his management style as "very hands on, very visible and accessible".

Besides having an open desk, he also removes "the power distance" by making himself available to employees on social media, from Facebook to WhatsApp. Then there are the weekly and monthly forums with employees to talk about issues and ideas.

"I'm a huge believer in diversity, whether ethnic or gender. Diversity by definition will bring conflict, but if you can unleash its power, it can be very powerful," he says, adding that women make up half his management team.

"If I don't do anything about it, engineering will be predominantly Malay and finance will be primarily Chinese. You've got to say: 'Ok guys, this ain't working. I want to see different ethnic groups working and partying together. And if you have a problem with it, then you do not belong to this team'."

Mr Azran was recently flayed by Utusan Malaysia after he criticised it for being racist. The Malay-language newspaper had railed against the Chinese for deserting the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition during the country's general election in May.

He declines to comment on the attacks but says: "I'm not out to change or influence big national policies but in my sphere of influence here at AAX, I'm going to show how to make diversity work."

Mr Azran smiles when asked if the country's racial politics makes him sad as a Malaysian.

"I'm a serial optimist. If you tell me a situation is tough and difficult, I'm going to imagine I can overcome it.

"When I couldn't swim, I imagined myself blowing bubbles under water. Now, I'm swimming kilometres in the open sea."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 4, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to