Whatever you do in life, do it not for the money, but because it makes you come alive. So goes a well-worn cliche in business, designed to encourage people to “follow their passion”. The world could certainly use more people who pursue whatever it is that gets their blood pumping, and anyone looking for a potent dose of inspiration would do well to pick up the autobiography of AirAsia chief, Tony Fernandes.
Reading through the pages of Flying High, the time quickly disappeared along with the page numbers as I found myself engrossed in an autobiography that is intense, at times moving, and packed full of passion.
Reminiscing about his early childhood, the business tycoon would no doubt please his younger self, having built an impressive empire centred on his early obsessions with aeroplanes, music, and sports.
Raised by a reserved but supportive father, and a mother who he describes as “infectiously energetic”, Fernandes paints a picture of an early life that showed him how being bold can open up many doors of opportunity.
In one of many fantastic tales, he relives the visit of American music icon Ray Charles to Malaysia. Spotting a chance, Fernandes’ mother, Ena, called the star at his hotel and promptly invited him to a house party. The invitation was accepted by Charles who, upon spotting the family piano, sat down and played his classic hit, Georgia On My Mind.
At the age of 13, Fernandes was sent off to England to study at Epsom College. Initially, being away from home was tough for the teen, but he soon got into the swing of things and flourished there, particularly when it came to playing sports.
In his first few weeks, however, he felt homesick and, upon asking to visit home, was told by his mother that it was impossible – flying is too expensive, she said. In frustration, he replied, “Well, I’m going to make it cheap”.
Years later, the conversation would prove prophetic as Fernandes would go on to buy over and transform the ailing airline, AirAsia, with his long-term business partner Din (Kamarudin) Meranun. Within just 12 years (having bought the airline for RM1 in 2001 from then-owners DRB-HICOM) the business duo built an award-winning low-cost airline that operated 158 planes and generated RM5.2bil – quite the turnaround from starting with just two aircraft, a handful of routes, and running at a monthly loss of RM4mil on top of a RM40mil debt.
A key theme of Flying High is the resilience and perseverance it takes to make any kind of worthwhile success. As he admits himself, Fernandes was never an academic scholar, although he did eventually qualify as an accountant: a tough stint working as a waiter in a Mayfair hotel in London persuaded him that life without a proper education could be grim.
It was his resilience that led Fernandes to landing his first major job at Virgin. Having flunked the initial interview to join the company, he later spotted Richard Branson in the foyer as he made his way out. “I realised I could … smile at him and walk on or I could actually say something to him that would get his attention and make him interested in me.
“So I said, ‘Hey Richard, I’m from Malaysia.’”
That act of boldness led to a conversation that resulted in a job at Virgin TV, which started the wheels turning on a career that would soon take off and soar to great heights.
It’s often said that, “It’s not what you know but who you know”; the story of Tony Fernandes reframes this old chestnut. As his career path, business decisions and successful leaps of faith show, it’s more about what you do than who you know. This is a story of taking chances, being bold, learning from mistakes, and not giving a thought to what you don’t yet know: if you have enough determination, you can always figure the rest out along the way.
Flying High is a book that’s packed with memorable tales that will leave you feeling pleasantly inspired and suitably exhausted. Fernandes’ writing truly comes alive when he writes about the team efforts to build AirAsia, and the triumphs and challenges he has faced at the helm of English football club, Queens Park Rangers (QPR).
Alongside the passion and the pride of what the AirAsia chief has achieved, there’s a deep authenticity and sense of gratitude when he talks about the people he works with and how they’ve helped him to create his extraordinary successes.
There are also a number of moving passages in the book, including the tragedy that occurred on Dec 28, 2014, when an AirAsia Airbus disappeared from radar, travelling from Surabaya to Singapore. At a press conference at the time, he described the event as “an airline CEO’s worst nightmare”. The chapter gives an emotional insight into how everyone – from the victims’ families to the AirAsia team – had been affected, and also shows the incredible professionalism, commitment and care shown by a close-knit team in their response to a horrific occurrence.
There is so much of Fernandes’ journey covered in just 240 pages, and no doubt his life story so far could be written across two or three volumes. Then again, the intensity of the book reflects a man who is driven, passionate, and likes to get straight to the point. One wonders whether he took the same “no frills” approach to writing as he does to business. After all, a second book would mean more printing costs.
Reflecting on his story, Fernandes writes, “If someone had told me when I was twelve that I was going to own an airline, a Formula One team and an English football club, I’d have said, ‘What drugs are you taking?! Please give me some of them.”
In the end, the AirAsia boss didn’t need any drugs, but having read through the ideas he’s currently mulling over (on top of his current day jobs), I would like to know what brand of coffee he drinks – the man appears to have an inexhaustible supply of energy!
Flying High: My Story From AirAsia To QPR
Author: Tony Fernandes
Publisher: Penguin, memoir