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Interviews

Tony Fernandes on creativity

Airline Boss Tony Fernandes on ‘the magic ingredient’ that unlocks creativity.

Tony Fernandes disrupted the travel industry in Asia by launching AirAsia, and now he’s doing the same with affordable accommodation. Creativity is essential to his success.

Fergus Hay, Worldwide Managing Director of Ogilvy & Mather, talks to airline entrepreneur Tony Fernandes. Fernandes introduced low cost regional travel with his highly successful budget airline AirAsia. But he is also a hotelier, owns a UK football club, is President of ASEAN Basketball League, founder of Caterham F1 Formula One team, and has recently entered the energy drink sector. Tony talks to Fergus about his uniquely creative roots, the importance of challenging conventions and thinking freely and bravely.

Transcript

Fergus Hay:

Hi, I’m Fergus Hay and welcome to Creativity – Weapon of Mass Disruption where we profile pioneers who have unleashed the power of creativity to disrupt our assumptions, our categories, our industries and drive agendas to great effect.

Today I’m joined by serial entrepreneur and challenger to the establishment, Tony Fernandes.
Few really know what box to put Tony in. He’s an airline entrepreneur, having founded the phenomenally successful AirAsia, bringing low cost regional travel to Asians who have never flown before. He’s also a hotelier, with The Tune Group making destinations accessible with affordable accommodation.
So Tony, if we were to peek back in time and look through the curtains of the Fernandes household, what would we have seen? Would we have seen a really creative environment? Were you encouraged to think differently?

Tony Fernandes:
My mother was highly creative. She was a piano teacher, music was always in our house. My father had a billion records in all those Readers Digest box sets and five track cartridges.

Fergus Hay:
Your mother sounded like an incredible woman. Strong, very independent, she set up the Tupperware business in Asia. She used to wake you up in the middle of the night to co-write songs. And I hear she hosted Ray Charles. This is an amazingly unique environment to grow up in.

Tony Fernandes:
It is really. I’d have The Ink Spots, Ray Charles, The Platters all coming over. She’d just call up – these were the days before terrorism and security – she’d call up their hotel and say, I’m having a party would you like to come along.

Fergus Hay:
And they would, there was something about her?

Tony Fernandes:
Yes. Her strength. She was an amazing people motivator and she was an amazing believer in her own ability that she could do anything.

Fergus Hay:
A young mother who had the temerity to call up international stars and get them round to her house, shows a wonderful abandon of parameters and constructs. She felt anything was possible?

Tony Fernandes:
Yes, very much so. And the belief, when I saw these kinds of things – wow, anything is possible. And that stuck with me all my life.

Fergus Hay:
Tony, you are a ball of fire, energy and making things happen. But I did find one quote that felt like it was a real moment of introspection. Which was you talking about your mother’s death. You mentioned that when she died something inside of you died.

Tony Fernandes:
When she died there was a massive hole because she was larger than life. What really died a little bit in me was playing music which I used to enjoy so much, and I don’t do often now.

Fergus Hay:
There’s a wonderful story of you and a friend watching aircraft take off over Epsom College and you turned to him and said I’m going to own one of those one day. Surely he laughed and said don’t be ridiculous?

Tony Fernandes:
Well all my life that’s been the case. From 6 yrs I told my dad I was going to own an airline. And the next time I said it I was 12, I think.

Fergus Hay:
I read a fairly scathing attack from you on the current education systems being very metrics based, very evaluative, not giving people the room to grow creatively.

Tony Fernandes:
Yea, and when I scathe something I do try and do something about it. So I’m building a school at the moment, Epsom College in Malaysia. But education, like my airline, is about bringing the best out of people. Not everyone is academic and school should be the place where you discover what you’re good at.
And the teaching process is memorizing books which kills what you’re talking about – creativity. Where does creativity come from? Creativity doesn’t come from memorizing a book. It comes from art, drama and music, and creative learning is understanding history – what was the thought process of Stalin when we went through this; what was the thought process of Winston Churchill or Alexander the Great. As opposed to memorizing the book. For me exams are very easy if you understand what’s behind them.

That’s what I’ve done my best to bring to AirAsia. Every new staff, I give them the same speel, which is: You only have one life, you might as well make the most of that life. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t achieve anything. My job is to bring things out of you that you don’t even know are there. To turn you from a raw diamond into a diamond. And to push your personality to try things that you never did. And I reward failure, because I say, at least you tried. You don’t want to sit there at 55 and say, I wish I’d done it.
So we push people. To be able to do that you have to have a creative environment that allows people to think, that allows people to speak up without fear, and allows people to try and fail. So environment is the most critical element in innovation. I spend a lot of time walking around – walking around management is my style. And I see lots of talented kids. And this one boy was super smart, and I said, why don’t you be a pilot. He said, “I’ve got no qualifications, I left school when I was 12″.
I said I don’t care, this is my airline. And he got in to be a pilot and he’s now a captain.
So that changes the whole motivation of the organization. Anything is possible.

Fergus Hay:
Your spirit of being the underdog started young, I guess when you arrived at Epsom as a foreigner to find you can’t use a knife and fork. But I think when you went into the music business was the first time you took on the establishment and you decided you had to create a series under the AIM awards recognizing the importance of recognition of people. Does that put people on a pedestal? Does that give people something to aim for? Is fame important to us to perform?

Tony Fernandes:
I think recognition is very important. I think humans crave recognition whether it’s going out with a beautiful woman so that when you walk into the club everyone says, wow, who’s that guy with the hot girl; wearing a great suit; doing a piece of work – you want to be recognized.
That’s why a communist society doesn’t work because humans need ambition; humans need recognition.

Fergus Hay:
Is it part of creativity?

Tony Fernandes:
100%. If you don’t give recognition people aren’t going to want to try. They’ll do 9-5 an average job and go back. You have to create ‘I want to be a 110%, I want to be a winner’.
When you are trying to break establishment – and it’s very good the way your programme is, because you’re not talking about creativity just in say art – but in a more abstract way. Management in terms of breaking down barriers.

It’s creativity that breaks down barriers, creativity and how you deal with governments, creativity and how you pick a route. Every airline went to the same two places, I went to places no airline went to. And a lot of our route structure is innovative and creative.

Fergus Hay:
What was your most soul-searching time at AirAsia? When was that moment when you sat at home with the lights off thinking, oh my God…

Tony Fernandes:
Do you know, I never thought that. It’s bizarre. Maybe I never had time to think about it. What scared me the most was the 254 staff who had a job before with a safe company and a salary every month. It terrified me they’d be out of a job and I wouldn’t know how to face them.

Fergus Hay:
I want to close with a final question. In your experience what do you think is the magic ingredient to unlocking creativity?

Tony Fernandes:
Environment. That’s it. You know, creating an environment where people do not fear failure, where success is embraced and praised and where creativity is implemented. Too much creativity is just talked about. Every creative idea at AirAsia is implemented, every creative idea is celebrated. From the guy who designed our uniforms to the pilot who saved us 3% fuel by coming up with a new landing technique.

Fergus Hay:
So there’s a DNA in everyone to be creative. We need to create an environment of bravery…..

Tony Fernandes:
Correct. It’s environment. There’s nothing else. You can’t teach creativity. You can nurture it. You have to create the environment for people to go out there and dream and be creative.

Fergus Hay:
Tony, thank you very much.

We’ve heard from Tony of the importance of challenging convention, thinking freely and bravely to enable the underdog to climb on top. And that’s the disruptive power of creativity. Take something you believe in, think without constraint and commit to it. That’s how creativity can be a weapon of mass disruption.

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