In 2001, Tony Fernandes signed a deal to buy a failing commercial airline for around 25 cents. Three days later, 9/11 happened: passenger numbers around the world fell 2.7%, and did not recover for several years. But despite the inauspicious timing, AirAsia quickly became a highly successful low-cost carrier.

In a Facebook Live chat at the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN meeting, the Malaysian entrepreneur spoke to the Forum’s Mike Hanley about the “incredible ride” he’s been on with AirAsia, and shares what he’s learned about being a leader in a 21st-century company.

Fernandes, who came up with the tagline “Now everyone can fly”, describes how, thanks to the internet, AirAsia was able to grow at a tremendous pace, going from 200,000 passengers in the company’s first year to 55 million last year.

“We are really one of the babies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he says. “No-one in South East Asia used the internet to buy airline tickets. We painted ‘AirAsia.com’ on all our planes; we drove that message forward. We were the first airline to use social media to market and promote ourselves, and we’re now second largest airline in the world for social media, with 40 million followers in various forms.”

The highs and lows

On the subject of being a fast-growing business in the digital age, Fernandes says: “We’ve been amazed at the pace of change. It’s been fantastic for us. We’ve changed people’s lives and created a lot of jobs.”

The biggest challenge faced by the airline industry today is government protectionism, according to Fernandes. Airlines are unable to operate like any other global business because of a rule that caps foreign investment.

“Malaysia Airports owns an airport in Turkey; Heathrow is owned by the Spanish. Yet we’re not allowed to own 100% of airlines,” he says, referring to a new World Economic Forum report that urges governments to rethink airline ownership.

“What governments fail to realize is that airlines are massive drivers of economic development. If we could channel capital more efficiently into the industry we could grow much more.”

21st-century leadership

Fernandes describes his leadership style as “informal”. Anyone who follows the AirAsia boss on social media might have come across videos of him walking around his offices chatting to staff, and he says that he spends half his time talking to managers about the running of the business.

Asked how he motivates employees, Fernandes says being transparent is crucial – it helps to be able to see the boss and know what he or she is doing. Also, helping people to advance their careers, or “live their dreams” is key to boosting morale within companies.

“We reward people – not just monetarily, because anyone can do that – but by helping them advance their careers and allowing them to live their dreams.

“One of our dispatch boys has now become a pilot. Those sorts of things keep people motivated.”

As one of ASEAN’s biggest business success stories, Fernandes was asked to share his advice for young people wanting to start a company.

He sets out four key factors to keep in mind when launching a new business:

1. Get a product that people want.

2. Have a marketing budget. “People need to know about your product. Too many people have great ideas that no-one ever hears about. There’s so much noise out there it’s difficult to get people’s attention.”

3. Surround yourself with great people who complement your weaknesses. “In my case I had a great partner who understood corporate finance a lot better than me. I was better at marketing and operations.”

4. Passion is very important. “Do something that you believe in and that you love, and that will give you the energy to go forward.“

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 1 to 2 June.