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Fernandes fires up Asian expansion

High-profile Malaysian CEO Tony Fernandes is intent on furthering his companies’ pan-Asian expansion, notably through AirAsia. He sees such international activities as The Apprentice Asia and ownership of Queens Park Rangers FC as useful publicity for his business ventures.

Tony Fernandes appears sleepy and slightly bored as he sits in a makeshift office at a government-owned TV studio about 50 kilometres outside Kuala Lumpur having his makeup and hair done while being fussed and fawned over by at least 15 other people.

He’s here to film a TV show but is busily multi-tasking – conducting an interview with Euromoney, receiving instructions from trendy media types with walkie talkies and ear pieces, catching up with several employees, reading a report and asking what a man in a Liverpool FC shirt is doing in the room.

Asked about the financial crisisand in particular banks and the damaging public exposure of their flaws in recent years, he becomes almost immediately more animated, leaping to his feet, uninhibitedly removing his T-shirt and trousers in preparation for wardrobe and saying: "They needed a good kick up the backside."

High-profile Malaysian CEO Tony Fernandes
High-profile Malaysian CEO Tony Fernandes

Fernandes is one of the best-known faces in the Asian business world and is starting to make a mark in Europe. He admits to being something of a cynic where banks are concerned, saying that he believes a few more banking disasters remain in the future. "There are still way too many conflicts of interest in banking. I really think that actually banks should be banks and just lend. They are too involved in market-making and the other side of the business. To me a derivatives trader should be just a trader and not using his bank’s liquidity to trade." He does concede that, as a result of the most recent financial crisis, things have improved with respect to the accountability and transparency of banks. But he stops short of saying they are the finished article.

Doubts about banks aside, and as sleepiness quickly leaves him, Fernandes settles into a good mood, embracing the melee that surrounds him.

He’s filming The Apprentice Asia, in which he steps into the CEO role made infamous in the US and the UK by Donald Trump and Alan Sugar respectively. The idea is that he sets a series of business challenges to a group of 12 ambitious young things from across the region. The prize is a $100,000 a year job working for one of his companies.

The winner of this, the first season of The Apprentice Asia, will have a broad range of businesses to choose from. Fernandes has a diverse portfolio under his control, something he is clearly proud of. There is AirAsia, the budget airlinehe launched just days after 9/11 amid a chorus of doubt – leading it is what he describes as his day job. But there are also Tune Hotels, Tune Insurance, fledgling Formula One team Caterham Racing, the Asean Basketball League and struggling UK Premier League football club Queen’s Park Rangers.

Fernandes was born in Malaysia in 1964. He was educated in the UK at Epsom College in Surrey from 1977 to 1983 and graduated from the London School of Economics in 1987. He worked briefly with Virgin Atlantic as an auditor and then became the financial controller for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records from 1987 to 1989. He and Branson remain close and the similarities in their appreciation of brand recognition in particular are clear to see.

Businesses such as QPR and ventures such as The Apprentice are clearly aimed primarily at building the brand of AirAsia and, to a lesser but not insignificant extent, Fernandes himself in Asia and beyond.

"I initially thought I didn’t really have it in me to do it in terms of time and I didn’t really have the personality to do it compared with the likes of Trump and Sugar," he says, betraying no hint of false modesty.

"What many people have pointed out," he adds, "is that what I am doing on The Apprentice is not all that different from when I sit down with the CEOs of my various businesses. In some ways it has probably got me quite focused in that you only have two hours to analyse a problem. It’s also absolutely fantastic for AirAsia. It is obviously going to make our brand that much more well known, which is great, especially now that we are going into India."

AirAsia’s bid to set up in India, through a joint venture with Tata and Arun Bhatia, recently won approval from the Indian government. If it goes ahead amid the inevitable hard yards of red tape, AirAsia will be the first foreign company to attempt to tap into the growing Indian aviation market. Fernandes recently took to Twitter, something he does often and to the dismay of his public relations department, to say that he has identified a chief executive for this Indian business. As he signs a series of important-looking documents in a somewhat distracted manner he admits that his tweet might have jumped the gun: "What I meant is that I’ve seen someone who I think is awesome. There is an incredible amount of talent in India. The key to success is talent. If you find that talent, then look out. India has a billion people – if I can’t make it work, I’ve got a problem."

On the subject of India’s famously slow bureaucratic machinery, Fernandes says he is not a buyer. "Foreign Investment Promotion Board approval in less than a month suggests all the talk of bureaucracy is overdone. India is open for business."

In the home market of Malaysia, Fernandes admits AirAsia has had something of a cloud over its share price since the recent launch of what was immediately seized on as a direct competitor to AirAsia in the form of Malindo Airways. Malindo, it is thought, will aim to take the middle ground between AirAsia at the budget end and Malaysia Airlines at the full-service end. Displaying a natural ease at dismissing competition, Fernandes says he finds comparisons bizarre: "They are a full-service airline. They have business class and large TV screens. That is not a low-cost airline in our book."

Fernandes says that he enjoys working on every one of his expanding list of companies, but says AirAsia remains his drive. "I’m cutting costs and rationalizing, and it’s fun now."

To this end he now has chief executives in place for the standalone country arms of the airline, including in Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia itself. "I’m good at delegating. But I’m a nightmare CEO if I delegate and you don’t perform."

His sporting ventures also clearly have a special place in his heart and he has been a fixture at Loftus Road this season to watch QPR’s struggle to stay in the top flight of English football.

"QPR has enormous branding potential and has helped AirAsia tremendously. It’s very exciting. It’s a new experience for me being in football." A high-profile role in English football brings with it a level of public scrutiny that is difficult to imagine, but Fernandes is at ease with this.

"I’ve never been worried about scrutiny. If QPR were to drop – well I’m an accountant," he says, enigmatically. "We survived last season, it’s looking quite difficult this season but let’s see."

Earlier this year, shares in Tune Insurance made their public market debut on the Malaysian Stock Exchange. It is the first of three of his businesses to list on public markets this year – AirAsia X, the airline’s long-haul affiliate, and AirAsia Indonesia are set to follow. The three will hope to raise a combined $550 million.

On the subject of tapping the capital markets, particularly when equity markets continue to be volatile and large IPOs have been rare almost everywhere in Asia, with the possible and notable exception of Malaysia, Fernandes says he is not into playing guessing games. "There is never a right time to tap the capital markets in my opinion. Business is such that I am a big believer in just doing it when you have the right opportunity. So if you take interest rate hedging, currency hedging or oil hedging, there is never necessarily a right time. My philosophy is that when you get an opportunity to, for example, take an interest rate swap, you do it. You take the risk down."

Credit Suisse has been AirAsia’s main banking relationship to date alongside CIMB, the Malaysian bank whose chief executive, Dato Sri Nazir Razak, is a close friend of Fernandes. "We may be friends socially but business is business and he runs a damn good bank with damn good people. He has the same Asean aspirations as me, he’s aggressive and he’s smart. CIMB has come to the forefront and has overtaken Credit Suisse in some areas."

Other banks that have been active with AirAsia include Barclays, Maybank and BNP Paribas, which has provided debt financing in recent times.

Fernandes says that the west can learn a great deal from Asia, particularly with respect to regulation of capital markets, where he points out that several Asian regulators have done an outstanding job. From his vantage point he detects a certain arrogance in the west with respect to the view of Asia, but also says that Asia can learn lessons. "You can learn from both regions – no one person has the answers. In a globalized economy one should be globalized." The eurozone crisis, he says, has had no impact at all on AirAsia, showing that Asia’s development continues apace, particularly with respect to developing its own intra-regional trade flows.

As he wraps up the interview, Fernandes realizes he does not have a belt or socks to wear with his suit. His ever-willing PR manager promptly whips off his socks and the Liverpool shirt wearer donates his belt. Fernandes transformation to television CEO is complete and he marches into the studio to film the latest episode in his Asian expansion.

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