‘Greed might be good, Gordon Gekko. But the benevolence of Tony Fernandes is better’


The Covid-19 crash has many businesses looking to offload employee costs faster than a trader shipping a toxic debt. Yet, AirAsia’s CEO has defied the market by forgoing his salary in a bid to save all of his people. The unorthodox move might yet prove a shrewd long-term investment says Max Gosney, GHI Conference Chairman

“Gordon Gekko would be choking on his Davidoff Cuban cigar at the news Tony Fernandes, AirAsia CEO, has stopped his salary to avoid laying off staff this week.

‘Now Tony,’ you can picture the fictional villain played by Michael Douglas in the iconic film, Wall Street cajoling. ‘Don’t try to be popular, a nice guy. Winners need to be ruthless. Greed is good.”

The business world casts more in the Gordon Gekko mould than in the image of Tony Fernandes. Being pitiless, direct and clinical are crucial if you want to clamber to the top. Afterall, it’s a dog eat dog world and the pack will pounce on compassion, humility or other more human weaknesses.

So, those pilots, pursers and ground ops managers that Fernandes seeks to save are just commodities as the Gekko brigade would view it. Their value has plummeted with the onset of the Covid-19 crisis and we need to divest of our stock fast. It’s no different to A-1 jet fuel: we don’t need to keep filling the tanks of our aircraft when the fleet is grounded. Don’t feel bad. Afterall, business is business.

Yet Fernandes follows a different market strategy/philosophy. His spirited message of ‘togetherness’ and ‘family’ to AirAsia employees is a shrewd investment in the human spirit. One trade in compassion resulting in a thousand potential paybacks that lay well beyond Gekko’s cold hearted grasp.

You see: AirAsia and other operators are going to depend on their people more than ever to rise out of the coronavirus pandemic. Our fortunes are inextricably aligned with retaining our most able employees. A GHI Skills Survey (pre pandemic) found 62% of operators reporting a sub-standard service to airlines because they couldn’t source the requisite skills. Flights were being delayed and safety seriously compromised because of our inadequacies in attracting and retaining talented people, the GHI research showed.

Wantonly divesting of our staff now like they’re some toxic debt is plain daft. Sure, you’ll bring the wage bill down in the short term, but not nearly as much as your production capacity and quality of future service. In three to six months (God willing) a business is going to need that pushback driver or passenger check-in agent. You know the one who could always count upon to depart an A380 in poor visibility or prompted letters of appreciation with their outstanding customer service.

Treat them like trash now and they’re gone forever. Years of good service, honed skillsets and tacit knowledge chucked away on the first ill wind.  Our businesses forced to go back to square one and compete against fast food chains and DIY stores for a dwindling pool of local talent in the upturn.

Of course, a business must take necessary steps to survive these cruel times. Not everyone has the cash reserves to make it across the desert created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet Fernandes is not preaching procrastination. His AirAsia colleagues have agreed to voluntary pay cuts to support the long march. Not everyone can afford to forfeit an entire income like a multi-millionaire CEO. But, team members have sacrificed what they can afford from their incomes.

Because, you sense, AirAsia and its employees are in this together. The top looks out for the bottom and the bottom looks out for the top.

Other innovative alternatives to job cuts are also in play among cash-strapped aviation operators. Take dnata in Singapore who are working with the government to redeploy employees left idle by the grounding of aircraft to work on community support projects or earn new skills in digital technology. It is providers like these who take an enlightened and considerate stance to their workforces that will retain the skills essential to delivering future success.

By treating their employees as sentient beings rather than inanimate commodities like oil – they will become the great winners of the Covid-19 crash.

Because Mr Gekko while greed might be good, benevolence always brings you the best dividends in the long run.”

What’s your view? Email max@groundhandling.com