x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tony Fernandes enjoying life in the fast lane with Team Lotus

Good business acumen has seen the Malaysian become a success with his firm AirAsia. He now wants to replicate that in F1 with Team Lotus.

Heikki Kovalainen, the Team Lotus driver, has a strong relationship with Fernandes, the Formula One team's owner. Lai Seng Sin / AP Photo
Heikki Kovalainen, the Team Lotus driver, has a strong relationship with Fernandes, the Formula One team's owner. Lai Seng Sin / AP Photo

A man as powerful and pervasive as Richard Branson is not accustomed to losing. Yet that was the end result at Yas Marina Circuit last November following a season-long wager with friend, rival and former employee Tony Fernandes, now the chief executive of AirAsia and principal of Team Lotus.

The deal, struck in London, launched in Bahrain and won and lost in Abu Dhabi, dictated that whichever of the two rookie teams - Lotus or Branson's Virgin Racing - scored fewer points over the course of the 2010 season would see its owner work as a flight attendant on his counterpart's airline for a day.

It was due to conclude tomorrow with Branson scheduled to fly from Stansted to Kuala Lumpur dressed in AirAsia's famous red outfit — complete with shaven legs. Fernandes had even warned his rival to prepare for "the likely pain of a pair of high heels".

Yet, due to London becoming the epicentre of the world this weekend courtesy of a Royal wedding, the Virgin Group owner's day of reckoning was rescheduled. The flight will now depart on July 4.

"All credit to him for keeping his word," Fernandes said. "He has not wimped out and he is doing it for a good cause."

All the money generated from ticket sales go towards charities of the two men's choice, but Branson will be well aware the exposure benefits of such a stunt are incalculable.

Likewise, Fernandes - who worked as a senior analyst for Virgin in the late 1980s - may be relatively new to Formula One, but he is no rookie when it comes to marketing.

"My mother used to sell Tupperware, so I think it's in my blood," he told The National from the pit lane at the Malaysian Grand Prix earlier this month.

Born on April 30, 1964 in Kuala Lumpur, Anthony Francis Fernandes left his father, his mother and her Tupperware parties behind aged 12 to attend public school at Epsom College in Surrey, England. After graduating from London School of Economics in 1987, he started his professional career with Warner, before joining Branson's Virgin Communications where he was employed until 1992 when the music industry coaxed him back home.

At the turn of the millennium, the aviation enthusiast together with like-minded peers, purchased AirAsia, the ailing government-owned carrier, for one Malaysian ringgit — the equivalent of approximately Dh1.20.

It was a token gesture and for it the group inherited two planes and $40 million (Dh146.9m) worth of debt. A decade later and Fernandes's creation — Asia's first budget, no-frills airline — generates more money than any other airline on the continent and, last year, the carrier's parent company announced first-half revenue of $562 million and net profits of $131m.

It is barely surprising then that, by late 2009, Malaysia's 20th wealthiest man had followed up an interest in motorsport by entering the ultimate rich man's game and enjoying relative success. Team Lotus, having developed a Formula One car with a start-up budget of $125m — less than half the operating costs of the likes of Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes — finished 10th from 12 teams and the highest among the three new outfits.

As well as ensuring Branson's embarrassment, a top-10 finish also secured Team Lotus with approximately $30 million of television revenue. The result was the latest confirmation that Branson may appear in James Bond's Casino Royale, but Fernandes is fast becoming the man with the golden touch. His figure — short, stocky, smiling, green-and-gold shirt, red baseball cap — is a popular sight around the pit lane and paddock.

"He can charm the birds out of the trees," Bo Lingam, a Malaysian who used to work with Fernandes at Warner in the 1990s, told Forbes.

"He is a passionate, instinctive motivator," said Heikki Kovalainen, the Scandinavian driver who races for Team Lotus along with Italian Jarno Trulli. "Tony has a good sense of humour. He is starting to understand the Finnish way and I am starting to understand the Malaysian way."

This year's operating costs are $90m, but Fernandes said that unlike some team owners — and he cites the proprietors of his beloved West Ham United Football Club — he does not get too vocally involved in the day-to-day running of the group. Instead, he said, he is happy to leave the mechanics and tactics side of grand prix racing to Mike Gascoyne, his chief technical officer.

"I am a strategy person and I leave it at that," Fernandes said. "You don't hear me making comments on Gascoyne or my drivers or anything. I don't decide who drives or how because I don't have that value. But I add value in the branding, getting the right team together and getting them motivated."

He added: "If you look at all the accessories we produce and our accessibility on Twitter and such like, we are a different Formula One team. If you go into a motorhome, it's a very happy motorhome and it's the same in the pits. We are good at managing people and we are good at dealing with the brand."

The Team Lotus name - which is now embossed on everything from flip-flops to energy drinks - has been at the centre of a long-running, bitter dispute and reached the High Court earlier this year. While Fernandes's team competed under licence from Group Lotus in 2010, the British car maker decided to sponsor Renault F1 this season and revoked the licence, prompting Fernandes to purchase the rights to Team Lotus.

Group Lotus believe Fernandes has no entitlement to race under the Lotus name; Fernandes says he owns the Team Lotus title. A court judgement is expected in the coming weeks and, while the Malaysian entrepreneur admits the team has lost sponsorship opportunities because of the case, he is confident the dispute "is coming to an end". He is also adamant it has not affected the development of the car.

"Of course, it would be nice to have more money, but we were always going to operate at £55m, which we've got," he said.

A number of new sponsors have been announced in recent weeks — including Dell and Rodac — while Fernandes recently announced Team Lotus have bought Caterham, the niche British sports car manufacturer. Analysts said the purchase is a fall-back incase Fernandes loses in court and has to change his team's name.

"The [Team Lotus] name is great, but the people make it great," said Fernandes, who estimated around 200 staff are employed at the base in Norfolk, England. "Dell were the first team to say 'We are investing in the people; we don't care what you're called' and that's really a big statement from a big company that has seen what we do and how we do it."

The similarities between AirAsia and Team Lotus are "uncanny", he added.

"Here we have not much money, we've had all this fighting from other people trying to kill us. I had the same at AirAsia and yet AirAsia persevered and we will as well. It is exactly the same in terms of the lessons learned: You have to build a good structure, be patient and not panic. We have done it right; we have built the right infrastructure, we have done everything correctly, we haven't tried to short-circuit anything and I think we have a good future ahead."

The legal wrangles have certainly not affected the recognition directed towards the team's principal. In December, Fernandes was voted Forbes' Asian Businessman of the Year and last month he was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive a CBE from Princess Anne.

"From a prestige perspective, obviously the CBE is much higher," he said. "But from my own perspective, it's always great to be recognised by your peers and getting Asian Businessman is great for AirAsia because even though I win it, it's really AirAsia."

Fernandes added: "You see many people standing outside Buckingham Palace, so it was very nice to be on the inside — as a Malaysian, we don't get that chance very often.

"The Princess Royal did mine and she was talking about how she still couldn't believe how I had gone from the music business to aviation to owning a Formula One team. So in the short time I had with her, I explained that business is business; it's about maximising the top line, minimising costs and getting a good profit."

From assisting his mother sell Tupperware in Malaysia to helping British royalty understand business, Fernandes has come a long way. But he knows the road is longer still, and to win you need a well-built car.

"If you want a seat at the table, you have to build a car that's fast enough to compete," he said. "Just now, we are minnows, but we will grow."

Few people can doubt him, especially the bearded billionaire with the smooth legs and the high heels.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae