Tan Sri Anthony “Tony” Fernandes was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1964 to an Indian father and Malaysian mother. He went to school in England and graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1987. He worked brieﬂy for Richard Branson at Virgin Records as a ﬁnancial controller before becoming Southeast Asia Vice President for Warner Music Group in 1992. In 2001, Fernandes left Warner to go it alone.
Back when he was still a school boy, Tony’s family could afford to send him from Malaysia to London for schooling, but it couldn’t afford to pay for his trips back home during mid-year holidays. To beat the isolation of a vacant boy’s hostel during the holidays, Tony did the next best thing: he went to London’s airport and starred longingly at all the planes that took off. “Plane-spotting” Toni recalls nostalgically. That was a time when Tony sat longingly for someone to come and cut air fares so that he could go home. When no one filled that need in his home country, Tony took matters to hand and became an entrepreneur himself cutting air fares for other budget travellers.I t was through Datuk Pahamin A. Rejab, the former secretary-general of the Malaysian Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry that Fernandes came to meet with then Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir in October 2001.
Instead of starting from scratch, Mahathir advised Fernandes to buy an existing airline. AirAsia, the heavily indebted subsidary of the Malaysian government-owned conglomerate, DRB-Hitcom, was losing money. Fernandes mortgaged his home and used his personal savings to acquire the company, comprising two Boeing 737-300 aircraft and debts of US$11 million (RM40 million), for one ringgit(about 26 US cents), and transformed it into an industry player. One year after his takeover, AirAsia had broken even and cleared all its debts. Its IPO in November 2004 was oversubscribed by 130%.
Fernandes low-cost strategy was clear in the company’s tagline “Now everyone can ﬂy.” He cut costs relentlessly in every possible way. He deployed his aircraft efficiently, hedged oil prices smartly, expanded the airline’s services to where others feared to tread, and marketed his airline for the budget traveller. Fernandes estimated that around 50% of its travellers are ﬁrst-time ﬂyers. The company is now widely regarded as the world’s best low-cost airline .
His biggest achievement was to open up countries within the region to new budget carriers, which previously did not have open-skies agreements. As a result of Fernandes lobbying in mid-2003, Dr Mahathir brought up the idea with leaders from neighbouring countries. Those nations subsequently granted landing rights to AirAsia and other discount carriers. One year after his takeover, the airline had cleared its debts of $11 million and had broken even. From just two airlines in 2001 the firm’s fleet grew to 101 in 2012. Year-after-year AirAsia clocked double-digit growth in the number of passengers it flew and the revenues it earned. Nearly 280 million passengers have flown on AirAsia since its launch at the end of 2001. AirAsia becomes the first airline brand in Asia outside China to carry 50 million passengers in a year. As a yardstick of its global scale, only 10 airline brands globally are currently in the 50 million passenger club.
In 2007 Fernandes founded Tune Hotels, a low-cost hotel chain that promises “Five-star beds at one-star prices.” He is also the majority shareholder of Queens Park Rangers Football Club. He advises potential entrepreneurs to “dream the impossible. Never take no for an answer.”
As of February 2014, Forbes Asia valued Fernandes net worth at $650 million, ranking him at number 28 on the Forbes list of Malaysia’s Richest
But for the man who started an airline empire with just two aircraft the personal rewards are sweet. No longer would whole villages gather at just the sight of a single gleaming airplane in the clouds. For the first time, those villagers could become airline passengers too. He advises potential entrepreneurs to