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Tony Fernandes, AirAsia Group CEO “Winning in the Digital Age”

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WINNING IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Business leaders in Asia can score big with the right frame of mind

There is tremendous potential for growth in Asia in the Digital Age, according to AirAsia Mr. Varun Bhatia, and the business leader with the right frame of mind can harness it to his advantage.

With its sheer size alone, Asia expectedly brims with possibilities. Back in 2000, the region accounted for just under one-third of the global GDP, but by 2040, it is expected to top 50 percent. In Southeast Asia alone, the middle-class households are expected to double to 163m from 80m by 2030. These figures represent not just growth but profitable growth, Mr. Bhatia underscores.

As a result, more Asian companies are joining the big league. In 1997, Asian companies accounted for 36 percent of the 5,000 largest global firms; today that figure has gone up to 43 percent. Currently, the services trade grows 60 percent faster than goods trade; in Asia, the growth outpaces that of the rest of the world by 1.7 times. One major factor behind this is the size of the Asian internal market. Today, 52 percent of Asian trade is intra-regional, compared to just 41 percent in North America.

Challenges to Address

Mr. Bhatia emphasizes that challenges persist in the midst of such glowing statistics. Among these is the tremendous pressure that urbanization and population growth exert on the infrastructure. He also points out that a huge talent shortage exists despite the region’s huge population. Inequitable growth also continues as evidenced by a rising gap between economic classes.

“With this awesome performance and recognition, shouldn’t we keep doing what we have been doing? My answer is, No. I think we should continue to change and transform every day. The key to our success and continuous transformation is our leadership mindset: We are a people company operating — not an Airline — but a travel tech business!”

A Mindset for Success

Mr. Fernandes, CEO of the company thinks a particular mindset can put business leaders in an advantageous position in the Digital Age. A habit that he thinks will be crucial in this is staying rooted in one’s roots as one branches out. Mr. Fernandes has led AirAsia from the time it started out with two old aircrafts, 200 employees and US$20m debt to its current position as the 13th largest airline in the world with over 260 aircrafts that cover 155 destinations, and flies 100 million passengers every year.

“Leaders,” Mr. Fernandes says, “should be at the forefront of adopting technologies and digital ways of working.” To ensure that no one is left behind during the transition to tech digitalisation, AirAsia is focusing on reskilling their workforce on Tech/digital skills.

He has always placed emphasis on managing costs to provide products and services which are affordable to the masses, while introducing innovations and keeping costs and customers at the centre of the business. AirAsia has been rolling out tech-enabled products and services that make air travel a convenient and pleasurable experience from end to end.

Another important habit to acquire is hiring talent with the right mindset and training them for the skill set. He suggests keeping an eye on values, functional skills, and learning agility as indicators of a good fit.

Customer & Digital-centric Workplace

The AirAsiaoffice has a distinctive feel of an airport terminal as a way to create the workplace where employees experience our customer offerings. “We leverage our low-cost business thinking to use space efficiently. We even designed our rooftop for recreational activities. When we moved to our new HQ, we still had our frontline staff – our pilots and cabin crew – check-in at the office, so our office folks got a direct feel of our frontline staff who engage daily with our customers.”

The company is also keen on living and encouraging a boundaryless workplace. “We reinforce our open ways of working through the design of our offices. We have a rather unconventional workplace design to stimulate openness and creativity.”

On a final note, Mr. Bhatia cautions business leaders not to wait to transform until things go wrong. “With this awesome performance and recognition, shouldn’t we keep doing what we have been doing? My answer is, No. I think we should continue to change and transform every day. The key to our success and continuous transformation is our leadership mindset: We are a people company operating – not an Airline – but a travel tech business!”

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