Session 6 started with, as mentioned in the Day 2 Summary post, an entertaining, insightful and inspiring talk by Tony Fernandes (Group CEO, AirAsia). Mr. Fernandes is a great storyteller that kept us captivated throughout the 30 minutes or so that he was on stage.

His talk was a story about disruptive innovation. It was also a story about disruptive branding and unconventional leadership. And tying it all together was a story about AirAsia that he bought for 25 cents in 2001. The airline Tony Fernandes bought in 2001 had 2 planes, 200 employees and $10 million in debt.

It all began “with the dream of making flying possible for everyone,” and no clue about airline business.

Tony Fernandes (CEO, AirAsia)
Each of Mr. Fernandes’ slides contained one message that was followed by anecdotes from AirAsia and his own experience as examples to underscore the message.

Begin with a dream. Dream big because sometimes dreams are realised. The dream story was about the acquisition of AirAsia for 25 cents and has since then been named the World’s Best Low Cost Airline 5 consecutive years, and is now worth billions.

Break away from tradition. When SARS hit in 2002-2003 travel basically stopped. The traditional response from airlines was to cut back on everything. AirAsia saw this as an opportunity. They tripled the marketing budget and lowered the price. They were the only airline doing marketing, and if prices are low enough people will travel. Building brand and loyalty.

Shake up old hierarchies. To enable cross-functional communication required to have an efficient airline (e.g. pilots and engineers communicating) they partnered up “enemies” with each other. They had to carry a photos of each other and eat together. But the groups started to understand each other efficiency was improved significantly.

Be accessible. Referring to the clothes his wearing on stage as a “dress-up” compared to when he is working, Mr. Fernandes emphasise his belief in dressing down to encourage people at all levels to approach him. All 15,000 employees at AirAsia has Mr. Fernandes phone number and can call him at any time about issues or to share a great idea. The core idea is to have 15,000 people working for him.

Enable everyone’s potential. Introduced a pilot program that anyone can enter. Mention a success story about a boy that 7 years ago was working as a belt loader that entered the pilot program, was best in class, and is now a captain. Mr. Fernandes also tells us about a young woman that approached him to ask if she can get a flight to Thailand to compete in Miss Thailand. She can get the flight on the condition that if she wins AirAsia can use her photos as promotion for a lifetime. She did, and was number 5 in Miss Universe. And is now the only Miss Thai pilot in the world.

Do dirty work. Don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty. It’s the best way to learn how your business work and where there are problems. Tony Fernandes explains how he refused to invest in a belt from ground to airplane. The loaders that had to do the work manually asked him to work with them for a day. This story ends with a soar back and new belts to help the loaders in their daily work.

In summary, this was one of the best and most inspiring sessions in the New Economy Summit 2014. We got insights in how AirAsia disruptive the airline business, and how Mr. Fernandes is thinking about business, branding and leadership. Maybe the best way to describe it is to end with… AirAsia is a company I could work for!