Tony Fernandes: Who dares wins

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What drives successful businessmen to invest in football clubs is an enduring mystery. Tony Fernandes is finding QPR quite a challenge but, he tells Richard Cree, he remains driven by a belief in the power of passion and ambition

Photography: Clint McLean

It’s a warm and sunny May afternoon in west London. This is something of an oddity in 2013. For one day, London is enjoying the kind of sunny spring afternoon associated with the football season reaching a climax (which it is about to do). The oddity heightens as I walk out onto the pitch at Loftus Road, home to Queen’s Park Rangers Football Club, to find a group of men sitting on plastic chairs on the pitch. One of them is in dressed in black tie. Another (the one doing most of the talking, more than his share of the laughing and almost all of the swearing) is Tony Fernandes, owner and chairman of the club. It is four days after QPR were relegated from the Premier League following a miserable 0-0 draw with Reading (also relegated the same day) that summed up the club’s season.

Unlike most chairmen in that scenario, Fernandes has spent an entire day with the media. It’s typical of him to invite the media (and by default the public) in on what many would view as a private time for the club and its fans. But Fernandes has a reputation for being open. Earlier this year, when the club was fighting for Premiership survival, the manager Harry Redknapp advised him to quit Twitter after Fernandes said he would be prepared to leave if the team was relegated. “If I can’t fix it I will be the first to go,” he tweeted. This communication with customers via Twitter is a feature of his approach. He makes no apologies for it, although he admits that openness and honesty are not always the best policy in football.

I have lived a great life. I dreamed of owning a football club. Now I own a F1 team, build cars and own an airline. It’s Roy of the Rovers stuff

“I have always done things my way and I’ve been successful in airlines and the music business, but football is a totally different world. I have been very open, probably too open. I have been a bit naïve, but I am learning. From now on it will change. I won’t be as open,” he tells me as I eventually get my turn on one of the plastic chairs. In this spirit of openness I feel like telling him he looks a bit frazzled. But after the blow of relegation and a long day of interviews, it’s probably not what he wants to hear.

One view of events at Loftus Road over the last two years paints Fernandes as the latest in a line of astute businessmen to have misplaced astuteness once they get the keys to a football club. Fernandes refutes this. For all he relishes owning a football club, this is no boyhood infatuation (indeed, he is a West Ham fan and tried unsuccessfully to buy them first). One criticism is that he gambled large sums of money this season trying to stay up, partly because income from TV rights in the Premiership is estimated to be worth £60m for the coming season. His gamble failed, as the big names he bought didn’t perform.

Mark Donnelly, QPR’s chief operating officer, admits as much. “It is well publicised that QPR invested in a squad designed to secure Premier League status that wasn’t successful. Tony has admitted to mistakes. But he and the other shareholders remain committed to the club and to ensuring it can prosper in the long term. Lessons have been learned.”

For his part, Fernandes defends his transfer record, saying he and his management team have a clear, long-term vision for the club. “Loic Remy is worth more than we paid for him and we got Cesar on a free. He’s a goalkeeper plenty of other clubs would be happy to sign,” he says. As it turned out, Cesar was soon to leave on a free.
There is some evidence that lessons have indeed been learned, with Fernandes and other QPR executives engaged in a typically public row with Redknapp over the signing of Wayne Bridge. CEO Philip Beard allegedly vetoed the deal, as part of the club’s apparent hard line stance on the money paid out in transfer fees, wages and to agents. Bridge signed for Reading and Redknapp moaned in the media.

Fernandes shrugged the matter off: “Harry is an emotional guy. He wants to come back up, like we all do. But we want to do things properly. We learned a lot from last season. We want players who want to play for us. We want to protect ourselves against players who may get injured or may not be fit enough. We have to find a balance between being enthusiastic and throwing money down the drain. The important thing is to get a strategy and stick to it. I’m not here to choose players. I never have. It’s not my job. Harry should be the first person to say I’ve been the most supportive chairman in the League.”

To others, the stream of highly-paid pros is a symptom of a club in crisis. This was never the original plan. Fernandes arrived with a clear statement that he wasn’t here to hand out cash. “You could spend £100m and still not buy success,” he said somewhat prophetically in 2011. In truth there is almost relief in the air as he talks about relegation. It is as if he sees it as an opportunity to really get stuck in with the rebuilding project.

He admits since he arrived he has been focused on survival and the pressure of staying up. But, he says: “It is definitely a bigger and stronger club than it was – the brand is heathier now than it was”. It is obvious he welcomes the chance to regroup and concentrate on building for the future. He lays out some impressive plans for the club, including a new training ground and building and moving to a brand new 40,000-seater stadium.

All these plans are delivered with the confidence you expect from a successful businessman and entrepreneur. This season’s big gamble didn’t pay off, but there is no doubt he is getting stuck into the business of turning the club around. “It feels like I have been doing turnarounds all my life and this is one hell of a turnaround,” he says. Like most turnaround experts, he says the key lies with getting the right people on board. If his player recruitment process hasn’t gone well, he has attracted top talent to the boardroom. First came the arrival of former boss of The O2 and founder of Air Miles, Philip Beard. Beard, now QPR’s CEO, has an enviable record in events management and comes with a reputation for pulling off unlikely successes. And former FA CFO Donnelly has come in as chief operating officer.

For his part Donnelly says Fernandes is an inspiring character. “His work ethic, vision, enthusiasm and passion for all his businesses can’t fail to rub off on you. He is a believer in empowering teams in his businesses. He’s got great instinct and like many successful entrepreneurs sees opportunities and makes things happen. He certainly keeps you on your toes. He also has a great grasp of the numbers and fundamentals of the business.”

Musical youth

Tan Sri Anthony Francis “Tony” Fernandes was born in Malaysia in 1964 and educated in England at Epsom College and the LSE. He started working for Virgin Atlantic as an auditor, before following his

Two years after I launched AirAsia, people saw me running around with a cap and a T-shirt on and thought it must be easy.”

 musical instincts (he plays guitar and piano) into the music industry, working as financial controller for Virgin Records, then returning to Malaysia as the youngest managing director of Warner Music. At Warner he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming regional vice president.

Having had a brief taste of the airline business, and seen the no-frills sector take off in Europe, he was keen to establish an equivalent carrier in Asia. Despite initially being denied a licence, he persuaded Malaysia’s prime minister to sell him the country’s troubled national carrier for a small token price. This was the break that the natural entrepreneur needed. The boom in AirAsia has been the building block for his subsequent successes which, with the exception of investments that might feel more like hobbies (football and Formula 1), have all been on a no-frills or budget business plan.

So how does he spread his attention across such a diverse collection of interests? “My job is Air Asia, it’s going well and it’s what I’m focused on. I am focused on effective communication with the senior management [at QPR], with Phil and Harry. We get together by video conferencing. But nothing beats being here. I don’t spend as much time here as I should. But my priority is Air Asia. I am an investor in Tune Group and a board member and the same thing goes at Caterham, which is being run by others. So really I focus on Air Asia and QPR.”

If his time at QPR is about preventing further decline and even building for the future, at AirAsia it is the opposite problem. The airline continues to grow and Fernandes admits that has become the main issue he has to manage there.

“The challenge for AirAsia is that we are not the small boy any more. There was a time when we were under the radar and we grew and before the others knew we were there. I remember someone at Cathay saying to me ‘God you are everywhere’, when we got to about 80 planes. As we go from 100 to 200 planes the challenge is to keep thinking small, keep the efficiency of being small. Lots of competitors have launched since we started and everyone is after us now. I would rather it was that way round. Two years after I launched AirAsia, people saw me running around with a cap and a T-shirt on and thought it must be easy.”

It’s the people, stupid

If Fernandes made it look easy he says that it gets back to employing the right people. “Getting the right people is the key to success. What’s gone wrong at QPR? Wrong people, wrong decisions. What’s gone right at AirAsia? Right people. At Tune Group, some people have been rocky, now it’s going great because we’ve got the right guy as CEO. Surround yourself with the right people and there is a chance you’ll succeed.”

As to his own part in that success, he says his accountancy training has been invaluable. “It is a tremendous advantage. It may not have shown at QPR, but being a numbers person has been essential. No one can pull the wool over my eyes when it comes to a balance sheet. I don’t think I could be an accountant in practice, it drove me nuts. But I was happy being a financial controller. I wanted to be involved in decision-making. In practice you are not making the ultimate decision. I think sometimes accountants put themselves in boxes by not getting involved in or understanding the real business.”

Owning an airline, a F1 team and a football club, it’s natural Fernandes gets painted as a cross between Sir Richard Branson and Lord Sugar (he fronted the Asian version of The Apprentice). He loves mixing with big names in business and recently held his old employer Branson to a bet to dress up as a hostess for a day on the other’s airline, depending on whose F1 team finished top. But he denies having heroes. “There isn’t anyone who particularly inspires me. I’m surrounded by great people every day.”

Fernandes trails off. Part of that lack of heroes might come from the fact he feels he has achieved so much. “I have done what I want to do. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I have lived a great life. I am 49 and I dreamed about owning a football club and I am sitting here getting interviewed by a magazine for chartered accountants. Life doesn’t get better than that. And at Loftus Road, where I watched Barry McGuigan and football on a plastic pitch as a young man. I own a F1 team, I build cars and I own an airline. It is a Roy of the Rovers story. You think this only happens in a comic strip.”

So what does he put his success down to? “It’s down to people and the ability to say ‘let’s do it’. I don’t listen to the negative. There are 99 billion reasons not to own a football club, but one reason you should do it — passion. You get the adrenaline when you are in the stands and your team scores a goal, which admittedly we didn’t do very often last season. I can’t replicate that feeling anywhere.”

Fernandes is clear that the club has a long-term strategy. This involves becoming an established Premier League club, which means investment on and off the pitch. “We are going to build a new stadium and a new leisure complex and hopefully a little city around it, and that will be brilliant. Success is down to people, ambition, never saying no and just believing and dreaming and turning some of those dreams into reality.”

Richard Cree

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