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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.
  • Kathleen Linkin Park
    With Linkin Park.

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.

OUR FIRST MEETING

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.

What wouldn’t most people know about Kathleen Tan?

In between the candid, casual banter, she drops nuggets of business world wisdom, dissects marketing strategies, discusses the need for a paradigm shift in approaching consumers. We expected an hour. She gives us four, during which she opens up to us like a girlfriend. Just like that, we fall under the spell of Kathleen Tan, as hundreds of thousands before us have.

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“MY SECRET IS THAT I AM A WOMAN. AND I CAN CHARM MY WAY THROUGH.”


But she understates the strategic planning and critical thinking behind her actions. In every meeting she attends, she keenly studies the body language of every person, especially how each respond to her. “You need to know who is the real decision maker. And this might be a junior person who has a lot of influence. So to gain influence, one has to know how to engage people at all levels.”

And engage she does. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the Singaporean practically grew up in a coffee shop operated by her Malaysian adoptive parents, observing people from all walks of life come and go. Perhaps it is her roaming the HDB estates as a teenager, peddling encyclopaedia sets door to door that few can afford (“You can’t say ‘I am here to sell encyclopaedias’. Nobody will open the door. You have to think about them as parents. So you say ‘I’m here to talk about your child’s education’.”)

Kathleen Tan and Tony Fernandes, AirAsia

PLAY HARD Tan gives her Weibo followers a glimpse into her life as a female corporate high-flier. Here, she’s with AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes at a company event.

In the same vein, before she went to China, she made sure she thoroughly understood the people she would have to deal with. She didn’t just sell the provincial governments in China a budget carrier service. She sold them the benefits of increased tourism revenue, and told them about benefiting SMEs with greater accessibility, of attracting investments. And once she got the doors open, she went straight into their hearts – and guts.

“Books about doing business in China often talk about Chinese businessmen scheming to get you drunk. But these are books written by Caucasians and, when I went to China, I realised that it is not an evil scheme, but really just the local food culture. It is the same reason why nothing gets done near lunch or dinner time – food is very important!”

Leveraging on this understanding, she wined and dined with gusto, winning potential partners over with her vivacity, connecting with them via valiant attempts to speak in Mandarin, impressing them with her knowledge of Chinese history, and wowing them (and herself ) with her capacity for strong baijiu. Tan always asked for something in return for drinking, and once downed 22 shots of Maotai in one seating. One can only guess the sweet deal she clinched.

Kuala Selangor, Malaysia

TEST MARKET Weibo was also a way for Tan to gauge the Chinese market’s reception to different destinations. Here, she points out Kuala Selangor, an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, which she likens to the salt flats of Bolivia.

In a male-dominated aviation industry, she stands out like a bright spark, and the men are charmed.

“Women are always hung up about being women. They think that it is a disadvantage. But I say: Turn that into an advantage. I walk into a meeting dressed nicely – it is a refreshing sight for them. And during the presentation, I show I have the smarts, I know what I am talking about – and they are impressed,” she says. “I don’t label myself as a woman. I am just Kathleen Tan, doing my job. But it is a fact that men and women are made different and work differently. Women tend to not have corporate rules on how to behave as a leader, so we can be more flexible. For example, if my VP needs to look after the kids while his wife is away, he can come in late.”

Tan’s spell goes beyond the boardroom, or the private rooms of restaurants, for that matter. Dubbed a social media queen in China, she has close to 400,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Her seven-year-old account is also ranked one of the Top 2000 Most Influential Accounts on Weibo, which has 300 million users.

Years ago, a casual post on Weibo asking if anybody wanted to meet for coffee in Beijing gathered responses from a few hundred followers. Today, she has fans who travel for miles just to shake hands with her. They thank her for enabling them to take their old parents on an overseas holiday. They offer to cook chicken soup when she posts about having to eat instant noodles for dinner.

THE EMPRESS WEARS GUCCI

Previously the divisional head of marketing at FJ Benjamin, managing coveted high-end labels such as Gucci, Coach, Fendi and Lanvin, she maintains the Kathleen Tan image carefully.

“When I joined, Tony said: ‘Eh, I know you come from the fashion world, but can you not wear designer stuff to work?’ I refused to compromise.”

She kept her wardrobe, suiting up in designer threads – even when her daily commute to work in Kuala Lumpur was an RM9 public bus ride that she shared with migrant workers. One might mistake her insistence for being vain, but Tan sees a lot more to looking good. “I told Tony that just because we operate a budget airline doesn’t mean we have to wear budget clothing. We hire the best. We have talent from 48 nationalities working at our headquarters. This isn’t just a small Malaysian company. Nobody trusts a cheap brand.”


“I told Tony that just because we operate a budget airline doesn’t mean we have to wear budget clothing… Nobody trusts a cheap brand.”


She is the straight-talking corporate leader with whom her Gen-Y followers can identify. “I know the impact and influence I have as a woman and a senior leader. Through social media, I let others have a peek into my life.” And when a post comes from someone of her stature, even something as simple as a picture of her rainbow-hued manicure carries an encouraging message. “I would say: Don’t worry about what others think of you. Live for yourself, for you only live once.”

Richard Branson, Virgin Airlines

REAL VOICES Like Virgin boss Richard Branson, Tan writes her own social media posts.

Tan’s career has seen her leaping across industries, from advertising to fashion, and music to travel. At FJ Benjamin, she was immersed in the world of high fashion. At Warner Music, she hung out with showbiz heavyweights such as A-mei and Stefanie Sun. Now she jet-sets to destinations spanning picturesque resort islands in Thailand and pulsating cities in China, South Korea and Taiwan. It seems to be a glamorous life, but it has its dark moments too.

When she accepted Fernandes’ proposal to join AirAsia, Tan did not realise that she would leave behind the privileges she had in showbusiness. “In Warner, I was chauffeured in limousines and stayed in suites. When I first landed in China, my ride was a beat-up 20-year-old Volkswagen, driven by an uncle in a Pagoda brand singlet, shorts and flip- flops. It was either that or taking the public bus with the aunties carrying live chickens from the market,” she recounts.

She doubted her own decision and wanted to give up. After all, she’d already shown her mettle professionally. “Then I told myself that I have to make this work. I am in a different world now and have to make the best out of it.”

And she did. Apart from the phenomenal results she has made at AirAsia, Tan took just eight months to turn around the loss-making joint venture AirAsiaExpedia when she was appointed its CEO in 2013. By the second year, her report card was a net profit of $20 million. AirAsiaExpedia also raked in titles such as Best Asia Pacific Online Travel Agency Website by Travelmole, as well as a slew of awards for its mobile apps.

Tan is poised to leverage on her now extensive industry experience to expand AirAsia’s market share not just in China, but also in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – the same markets she helped to establish AirAsiaExpedia in.

“I view every opportunity with the mentality of an Olympic athlete: You get just one shot. You train hard. You make sure you are prepared, and at the right moment, you give your very best.”

Tan succeeds, because she believes she can. “The human mind is very powerful. And if you set your mind to something, you will be able to do it.”

This applies not just to work, but even to her personal life. “I used to be a chain-smoker. Nine years ago, I decided that I won’t let cigarettes control my life, and I quit just like that. Lots of people tell me that it will be very difficult, that there will be relapses, so on and so forth. But it was not so for me. It is all in the mind.”

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Tan shares tips on how a business can harness social media, and take on the future.

ADOPT SOCIAL MEDIA, YESTERDAY

Kathleen Tan adopted social media ahead of time – but out of necessity. “One of our former staff members went over to Malaysia Airlines and tried to replicate our marketing strategies. It is the national carrier with lots of government money. We were David versus Goliath.” So she decided to try something different: social media.

That was about nine years ago. She hired two young social media experts who gave her a mandate: She has to use it, never mind that she gets five hundred e-mail messages a day and doesn’t have time even to go to the bathroom. But she took on the challenge anyway, starting with Twitter. Then Facebook. And when Weibo started in 2009, it gave her a means to engage and understand the 40 million young people in China – all potential customers of AirAsia.

“I did not have a huge research department supporting me when I was developing the China market. It was just me and my Weibo followers. They became evangelists of the brand. And they taught me so much, about the provinces where they come from, about the places they dream of going to.” Today, embracing social media is a necessity for any business. “Technology is changing our lives. You cannot run away from it. And if you are serious about business, you need to learn all about it.”

TRACK CHANGES

Tan has her finger on the pulse of IT developments. “Technology is a disruption and a game-changer everywhere. In China, it is moving so fast – just look at the likes of Huawei and Tencent. And China is the place to really embrace mobile payment – you can pay for streetside snacks with Wechat! I make it my business to know all these things.” During family gatherings, she would hang out with the young ones. “I will ask them about the latest game and I would study it. Who designed it? Why is it hot? I analyse its success and apply it to my work.”

STAR SIGNS

Tan also keenly observes celebrity influence. “I follow G-Dragon. He posts a picture of a fence – yes, a fence! – and gets 20,000 views. Everything he posts is cool, just because.” Social media has also made it possible for the man on the street to become a celebrity. “The definition of a celebrity is no longer the same,” says Tan.

KEEP IT REAL

“People know Virgin because of Richard Branson and his stunts. And he writes his Twitter posts himself – you can tell because when a PR person does it, it is boring.” So even today, Tan remains the person behind her many posts across the many different platforms.

COMMUNICATION 201

“Social media taught me how to communicate better. Previously I might post a picture of a branded bag, intending only to share a new design with my followers. Ninety per cent of them might like it, but 10 per cent might say: Stop showing off. I learnt to communicate in a way that resonates with all sorts of people. Now, if I post a picture of the latest Gucci bag, I would say something like: ‘You all know I work so incredibly hard. I wanted to reward myself and just saw this. What do you all think?’ It engages everybody, and isn’t insensitive to those whose annual salary is less than the cost of a handbag.”

FACING THE MUSIC

“I promoted Mauritius (on Weibo) and we had massive response – 650,000 views! But we had to cancel the route because the layover was too long and not commercially viable. The company told me not to post an apology but I still did it, and took a beating from the users. But they continued to follow me even after that, because I had the decency to apologise. When you become an ambassador for a brand, you have to put your face out in good times and bad.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Vernon Wong
ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim
STYLING C.K. Koo
MAKEUP Hongling
HAIR Jimmy Yap, from Kenaris Salon
CLOTHES (on her) Jersey jacket and silk trousers, from Armani Collezioni. (on him) Cotton suit, from Boss.