You don’t have to have good grades to work for Tony Fernandes – here’s what the AirAsia boss looks for in people

AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes (left) and BigPay co-founder and CEO Christopher Davison (extreme right) at the Money20/20 conference in Singapore on March 19.
Business Insider/ Jessica Lin

Tony Fernandes wants to take over Southeast Asia.

The AirAsia Group CEO told the audience at Money20/20 on Tuesday (March 19) that BigPay, his one-year-old FinTech venture, has its focus set on the region.

And why not? After all, this is the market parent company AirAsia knows best, having grown to become its largest low-cost carrier in the past 17 years.

Fernandes, who launched BigPay at the same conference a year earlier, said that the “mobile app with a card” is already the fifth top finance app in Malaysia today.

The aim for BigPay, he said, is to create a system that allows interoperability, and one that makes Asean a smaller place where financial inclusiveness is possible.

The app currently operates in Malaysia, with plans to expand to Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines in future.

Read also: AirAsia’s new inflight e-marketplace Ourshop promises ‘365 days of shopping indulgence’

The airline honcho later elaborated in a separate Q&A session that BigPay has the potential to onboard a wide range of products, especially with its access to AirAsia’s database of 40 million customers.

This robustness gives BigPay the potential to one day become a “financial superapp”, he said.

“Who wants to have hundreds of apps? You’d like to go one place and do most of your transactions – and that’s what we’re building,” he added.

Currently, 90 per cent of spending on BigPay is on non-airline services, he revealed.

Of course, it helps that things move quickly in the FinTech world. “We’ve been able to move financial regulators very, very quickly, Fernandes said. He compared this to the aviation industry, where he said he took seven long years to get flights from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore going.

“(In banking), they want transparency, they want inclusiveness, and that’s given us a huge platform to build some very exciting things,” he said.

Christopher Davison, BigPay’s Group CEO and co-founder, added that a large factor in BigPay’s success so far is its corporate culture.

“We’ve been given a huge amount of freedom to hire good people from diverse backgrounds,” Davison said, adding that the team has been given “independence (and) freedom to build a company from scratch – that’s quite rare for a big company to do…and that’s why we’re growing so fast.”

Want to work for Tony Fernandes? Be hungry

This freedom is probably one of the main reasons why AirAsia was named one of Malaysia’s most attractive employers to work for last year.

When it comes to hiring, Fernandes said he looks for “people who are hungry” and “really want something to prove”.

“If you look at everyone in my team, a lot of people (are those) who never made it and were never given the chance,” he said.

And what’s most unique about AirAsia is that you don’t have to come from an Ivy League background. “We have a lot of people who left school at 13 who are very senior in our companies,” he said.

“I look for people with drive (and) who want to prove something,” he said, adding that these people should also have good communication skills and be team players.

Tony Fernandes speaks to the audience at Money20/20 in Singapore on March 19.
Business Insider/ Jessica Lin

All staff, regardless of rank, have access to the CEO

AirAsia, which started with 200 staff, now employs 20,000 staff – but it doesn’t manage them like a typical airline.

“We’re probably one of the airlines of our size with no unions… and we’ve never had an industrial issue ever,” Fernandes said.

The key to talent retention, he said, is “transparency and the ability to communicate with anyone at any time”.

“All sorts of people in AirAsia have the ability to talk to me. There’s no hierarchy,” he added.

Other than the flat structure, Fernandes also emphasised the room to move and grow professionally at the company.

For example, at AirAsia, the senior management is very diverse, something Fernandes said is “not easy in our part of the world”.

“People see it and they believe they can achieve anything they want to in our companies.”

Read also: Tony Fernandes shares AirAsia’s secret to success – and it involves a surprising office dress code

Not only that, AirAsia also makes sure it appreciates its staff.

“Many companies don’t realise that their biggest asset – and this is the fault of accountants – is their people. It’s not a number you can put in your balance sheet, but people all need attention and appreciation for what they do. And I think we’re generally good at that,” Fernandes said.

The 54-year-old, who has on various occasions credited the company’s success to its people, also shared some advice for budding entrepreneurs at the conference on Monday morning.

“Surround yourself with great people. Most entrepreneurs think they know everything themselves, but really, it’s the team,” he said.

He also suggested that people with great ideas should go ahead and execute them. “Don’t listen to your friends’ advice – especially in Asia. In Asia, their mother will get involved, their father will get involved… just do it,” he said.

And what happens if you fail? “Try again,” he said.

Read also: Malaysia’s AirAsia falls to first quarterly loss since 2015 as fuel costs rise