Saturday, May 6, 2017

How AirAsia’s Kathleen Tan conquered China

How AirAsia’s Kathleen Tan conquered China with courage, charm and candour | 陈凯霖:以果敢魅力征服中国

"Go change China," said chief Tony Fernandes to Tan, now President of North Asian markets.

What can charm bring? For some: a free meal. For the more enterprising: followers on social media. For the exceptional few who know the value of charisma: billions in revenue.
That’s what Kathleen Tan did. “In 2004, Tony told me to ‘go change China.’ I went there. And I charmed them,” she says, unabashedly. After all, why be bashful when one has achieved the improbable, given China’s domestic aviation market then and Tan’s own industry inexperience at the time? That was the year Tony Fernandes bought over debt-laden AirAsia.
Whatever she knew of budget airlines at that point, the former managing director of Warner Music Singapore learnt from books.

Tan’s previous expertise was with wooing music greats – a much more terrestrial affair.

With no industry background or connections, she cold-called airports and provincial government offices. She was one woman from a Malaysian low-cost carrier diving into a male-dominated China aviation industry. Yet, within half a year, AirAsia became the first budget airline to fly to China, a market that contributes some 40 per cent to the group’s revenue.
In the first nine years of her tenure with AirAsia, the company’s fleet swelled from 17 to 143 aircraft. Revenues surged more than 10-fold. Since 2011, AirAsia has been reaping annual revenues of over US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion).
Call it the Midas touch. Call it EQ. Call it mojo. Whatever you call it, Tan’s clearly got it – and she isn’t afraid to use it.
Kathleen Tan, AirAsia's President of North Asia
Tan reveals that the gargantuan task seemed insurmountable at first, but she had “nothing to lose” and put one foot in front of the other.


We were told we had 60 minutes with her. That is probably enough time for an express laundry cycle, but not enough for getting under the skin of a new acquaintance. But, when we arrive that Monday morning – late, even – Tan, who had just returned to AirAsia as president for the North Asian markets after a year-long sabbatical, does not chide us for letting precious minutes slip by. Instead, she is as gay and relaxed as one might find her on a work-free weekend.
She compliments our editor’s choice of chunky lemon-hued heels. She pulls us into her new office on the 29th floor of 6 Battery Road so that we can take in the sprawling view of the civic district and beyond. She enthuses about her naughty plan to ambush Fernandes’ speech at an upcoming executives’ meeting with a viral video of AirAsia cabin crew Assraf Nasir gyrating to a Britney Spear’s tune, which broke the Internet the night before. She prescribes coffee for all at the lobby-level cafe, and regales us with stories of surprising potential business partners with her capacity for stiff drinks. She shares cooking tips (soup should be boiled for one-and-a-half hours at least, if you want full flavour), talks about her love for fashion, and her weekend indulgences of spa and manicure.

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