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PRIYADARSHINI PAITANDY
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INTERVIEW Tony Fernandes, group CEO of Air Asia, talks about turning a judge on TV reality show The Apprentice Asia

FLYING HIGHTony Fernandes
FLYING HIGHTony Fernandes

When Tony Fernandes was a little boy, he received a tiffin box as a gift. On that he stuck stickers of an aeroplane, a Ferrari and a football. Little did anybody know what was to happen decades later. “I have all three as my business now — Air Asia, a Formula One racing team and a football team. I believe there is no short cut to success, it is sheer hard work,” says Tony Fernandes, group chief executive officer — Air Asia, in a telephone interview.

The revolutionary business magnate will soon be on air — of a different kind. The small screen will see him take over the role of Donald Trump in The Apprentice Asia . It’s an adapted version of the U.S.-based reality show, which is a demanding interview.

Challenging the mind

“The producers were looking for diversity. They studied the background of the candidates to see if they had the desire to be an apprentice and if they could face the physical and mental challenges the show had to offer. It’s heavy on the brain and intellect. There were 20,000 candidates that applied. The application form was gruelling. I would have lasted about 10 seconds filling it up. It’s incredibly impressive,” says Fernandes. 

This is the first pan-regional show of The Apprentice , which has always been region-specific. There are 12 contestants from Thailand, Singapore, India, The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia battling it out for the top slot. The winner will get to work under Tony Fernandes for a year. A few have apparently delayed their weddings, quit their jobs, and even put their businesses on hold to work for him. So, what’s he looking for in his apprentice? “Great communication skills, humility, the ability to innovate and think on his/her feet and fierce determination to win. The airline business is tough and it’s easy to give up. In these 11 years, I have fought to ensure we are the best.” He adds that while planning is important, they should have the ability to change mid-way when things don’t go as planned. .Emphasis is also on leadership qualities because they cannot be taught.

His corporate schedule is chock-a-block, and he’s now following a rather heavy-duty time-table shooting for the reality show. How does he do the balancing act? “It’s a short period — one month. I do get irritated sometimes. But the schedule allows me to take breaks and have my meetings and Blackberry sessions. I have a good team. I am a delegator. I believe in my staff. If you set them tasks, they do it. Air Asia is doing well and it shows that the company is not about one person.”

Amidst the hiring and the firing, the successful businessman will, of course, have plenty of advice for the novices on the show. The winner will get to sharpen his business acumen during his tenure with Fernandes. As for the ones who don’t make it, they will still go home rich in experience and probably adopting Fernandes’ success mantra: “Believe the unbelievable. Never take no for an answer. Dream the impossible.”

Even though the 48-year-old sees himself as a ‘nice, soft person’, he is going to be a tough taskmaster on the show. He was offered the show twice earlier, but he turned it down because he thought he couldn't be tough enough and would probably be a bore. But now after a few sessions he says he is harder than he’d thought he could be.

Bet with Branson

And moving on to lighter things... does Sir Richard Branson of Virgin group plan to honour the bet he lost to Fernandes? “Sir Branson will be honouring the bet we made in 2010. The deal was that the owner who finished lower in the Constructors’ Championship in their debut F1 season will serve on the other’s airline. His team was lower than mine and we will see him as an Air Asia stewardess in May.” Given his partly South Indian roots (his mother’s Malayali-Tamil), does he plan to sponsor the Chennai Super Kings? “Hasn’t crossed my mind...,” he signs off.

( The Apprentice Asia will premiere on AXN this May)

PRIYADARSHINI PAITANDY

Believe the unbelievable. Never take no for an answer. Dream the impossible

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