The Malaysian low-cost carrier has transformed air travel in Southeast Asia by bringing it to the masses.
In the process, its founder, Tony Fernandes, has become a veritable rock star in the business world.
Fernandes, who spent several years during the mid-1980s as the financial controller at Virgin Communications, is also known for his close friendship with Sir Richard Branson.
Recently, the music executive-turned airline kingpin spent a morning with Business Insider in New York. Fernandes touched on several topics, including the conversation he had with Branson when Fernandes acquired a failed Malaysian government-run airline that would become AirAsia.
While at Virgin Group during the early days of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Fernandes told Branson that his decision to go into the airline industry was crazy and advised him to sell Virgin Record. It’s something Branson remembered during the early days of AirAsia.
“One of the first people to call me up when I started AirAsia was Richard who said, ‘I thought it was really stupid to start an airline’,” Fernandes said jokingly.
As far as advice goes, it was pretty simple, yet profound.
“He just said have fun and make it a fun place which we’ve tried to do,” the AirAsia Group CEO added. “But we would have done that anyway.”
“Virgin was very informative in my whole cultural experience in that it was a fun place, it was a place where there were no suits, it was informal and ideas and innovation are encouraged,” Fernandes said.
“That rubbed off on me.”
According to Fernandes, this open and innovative culture has defined the company’s success. For example, AirAsia encourages its employees to design their own uniform choices and to show off their personality as individuals.
“If they’re comfortable coming to work, they’ll be happier and more themselves,” he said.
In 2007, Branson and Fernandes got together to launch AirAsia X, the low-cost carriers long-haul division with Virgin Group taking an initial 20% stake in the operation.
This is just the first in a series of stories from our conversation with AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes. Stay tuned for more.