There are two sides to Tony Fernandes, global chief of Malaysia’s low-fare carrier AirAsia Berhad and the country’s most popular businessman: one is of flamboyance, coolness, easy camaraderie and accessibility, and another is of a ruthless businessman with a penchant to control what he gets into, often earning the ire of his partners.
Fernandes, also, takes reckless decisions and lands in trouble (it has been of the regulatory kind in India). He also elevates people and close associates as randomly and as instinctively as he chooses to abandon them. These characteristics mark his maverick moves, which at times lead to beautiful but often disastrous results. Here are two instances of AirAsia’s branding activities to elucidate the point.
Exhibit A. In 2015, AirAsia painted one of its aircraft with Andy Warholstyle murals of Bo Lingam, its deputy CEO. The words, “Bo Rocks”, were painted on the plane. It was a touching gesture, an endorsement of Lingam, Fernandes’ closest aide and confidant, who joined as ground operations manager in 2001 and slogged his way up to be second-incommand. It also underlined Fernandes’ qualities as a generous leader and colleague.
Exhibit B. Last month, a decision to have a plane sport the livery Hebatkan Negaraku (Make My Country Greater), the slogan of Malaysia’s former PM Najib Razak’s party Barisan Nasional, landed Fernandes in deep trouble. He was criticised for supporting a politician who was under fire for alleged wrongdoing.
Razak was defeated by a four-party alliance led by Mahathir Mohamad in the historic May elections. Fernandes posted a video apologising for supporting Razak, saying he “buckled” under pressure from the former government. He said he was trying to “appease” Razak who, Fernandes alleged, wanted to remove former trade minister Rafidah Aziz, a Mahathir supporter, as non-executive independent chairman of the airline’s long-haul subsidiary AirAsia X. The government and the company were also at loggerheads over the introduction of 120 cheap promotional flights, he added in his apology video.
While Razak is currently tangled in accusations of money laundering, Fernandes’ support of the previous government could have possible got him off on the wrong foot with the Mahathir government. The relations have yet to thaw.
03/06/18 Anirban Chowdhury/Economic Times