Cover Story: The consummate high-flyer

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 4, 2017 - September 10, 2017.
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From advertising to fashion, music and aviation, AirAsia’s president of China Kathleen Tan has certainly done the rounds. To her, what is most important at the end of it all is encouraging and promoting homegrown Asian talent. In a no-holds-barred interview that went well past its allotted time, Tan talks to Anandhi Gopinath about her fascinating career in marketing, how she arrived at AirAsia’s doors and the difference she aims to make in the business.


A particularly unsettling incident during Kathleen Tan’s time at an advertising agency in Singapore left a bad taste in her mouth, and changed her life forever. More importantly, it was the first step in the long journey that led her to the job she holds today: AirAsia’s president for China. She was personally hired by CEO Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, and the growth of her career mirrors the trajectory of the Malaysian low-cost carrier’s journey as it went from burgeoning airline to successful aviation behemoth.

“In the early days in advertising, the top jobs were all held by foreigners. That was why I left Leo Burnett,” Tan begins. “I was in my early thirties and so proud to be Asian. I was working on the Shangri-La account and at the last minute, I was told that I would not be able to attend the pitch that I was working on. Instead, the art director — a white guy — would do it. This was 11pm and I was still working on perfecting the pitch boards as the next morning, I was meant to fly to Bangkok. And then they picked someone else. That was when I realised that this is the time for Asians to rise — I am as smart as a lot of Westerners, and so were a lot of the young Asian talents in the agencies at the time.”

While someone else was presenting her own painstakingly prepared pitch in Bangkok, Tan wrote out her resignation letter and made up her mind — she had to be somewhere that recognised the value of homegrown, Asian talent. “I love the company and I remain friends with some of my former colleagues, but I decided it was time for me to move on — I needed to control my own destiny,” she says. Tan was glad for her experience in the agency, but she was also ready for a new challenge.

Her decision, which may seem rash in retrospect, turned out to be the right one as that very morning, she received a call from FJ Benjamin, which wanted her to manage advertising and promotion for its fashion brands.

Tan’s move into contemporary fashion has left a permanent mark — she has a great sense of style. We meet, naturally, at AirAsia’s massive headquarters in Sepang. It is located next to the sprawling klia2, which Tan flies into from Singapore just in time for our interview. Her travel outfit is on point, consisting of a crisp white cotton blouse, embroidered olive trousers and bright yellow slides. We are quite happy to photograph her as is, but she insists on changing into a more feminine ensemble of a lace blouse and floral printed skirt.

As we get her pictures taken, I get a glimpse of the steely determination and eye for detail that led to Tan’s success — she is happy to do whatever it takes for the perfect shot, responding positively to photographer Soo’s directions. She is full of laughs too, and takes an avid interest in both our lives — where we are from, how long we’ve done what we’ve done, and why we love our jobs so much.

Once the photography wraps up, we settle into one of the many glass-walled meeting rooms in AirAsia’s headquarters, where over some coffee — a mid-morning necessity for Tan — she tells us more about her time in luxury fashion, and what it was like in Singapore then.

It was not, according to Tan, necessarily very exciting. Brands such as Gucci and Lanvin would attract high-net-worth customers from Japan and Indonesia, so marketing efforts were strictly controlled by the brands’ headquarters in Europe.

“Nash wanted to bring [American clothing brand]Guess in, but Frank was unsure,” Tan recalls, referring to the Benjamin siblings. “I told Frank, ‘I think we should bring this brand in, it’s so much fun! Consumers are like me, they are young confident women. The market has changed!’ I was very passionate, and I think my conviction won him over. So he gave us ‘young people’ S$20,000 to do advertising and marketing for Guess. I agreed, without having any real background in fashion marketing,” she laughs. The runaway success of the quintessential American label in both Singapore and Malaysia made her realise that she had a natural flair for marketing, but she soon outgrew her role at FJ Benjamin.

Just then, she was headhunted to work for Warner Music, which was looking for someone outside of the industry to grow the market in the region. Making the transition from the glitzy world of fashion to the gritty music scene was tough. “It was a company with a lot of industry veterans who didn’t quite understand marketing. They would go and see retailers and export a lot of albums, which were flooding another market and therefore artificially inflated sales,” she recalls. Her first project was to market contemporary R&B band All-4-One. It saw sales of 40,000 CDs — an impressive feat.

Warner’s offices in Singapore and Malaysia were very competitive, and news soon spread of this smart, well-connected and stylish marketing star who was making waves in the industry. “All my contacts in Singapore informed me that the guys from Warner Malaysia were checking me out,” Tan laughs. “So I said to pass the message around that I am very scary.” One of the people doing this undercover sleuthing was Fernandes, who grew to respect and admire Tan’s talent and drive, and of course, her knack for marketing.

It was an encounter that would also change Tan’s life, and the two remained friends even after Fernandes resigned from his role as Warner’s regional vice-president to famously acquire debt-laden AirAsia for a token sum of RM1 in 2001. Fernandes offered Tan a job in his fledgling airline a few years later, and the rest, as the adage goes, is history. But in no way does the story read like your average history book, that’s for sure.

“Fernandes basically offered me a job at a Linkin Park concert. During the first song, I felt someone tugging at my T-shirt and I kept flicking it away because I was so busy enjoying the music. When I finally acknowledged him, he said, ‘Come and work for my company! Help me run my airline in Singapore.’ I wanted to get him off my back so I said, ‘As long as you can pay me as well as you did when you were with Warner?’ He agreed, and I went back to the concert. That was my priority,” she laughs.

Tan kept her word and quit her job at Warner, but Fernandes’ plans to expand into Singapore hit a brick wall, so his plans for her were derailed a little. She would have to move to Kuala Lumpur instead of remaining in Singapore, and take on the role of vice-president for marketing, Greater China. Tan was, by this time, very much sold on the idea of low-cost airlines and was ready for the new challenge. She arrived in KL with all her possessions in two new Samsonite suitcases.

For the second time in her career, Tan was greeted by a huge shock — after getting used to Warner’s new office in Singapore that was fitted with stylish accents such as Philippe Starck furniture, she was given a former engineering office, where AirAsia’s 200-odd staff worked in a space that looked like a warehouse. Getting to her office required a trek across an asphalt tarmac. “On my first day, I stood there in my Armani suit and high heels, and I was shocked. There was no pantry to make my 11am coffee, and I couldn’t simply smoke anywhere either. I also wouldn’t see Tony for a whole month upon joining.”

In reality, Tan’s experience was not unique as many people from Warner had joined Fernandes in his new venture. However, they bowed to their new working conditions. But Tan did not — she insisted on a proper office, for example, and maintained her self-imposed stylish corporate dress code. It was an environment she was completely unfamiliar with and she was far away from home, but she was determined to not just survive but also thrive. “In Singapore, I was somebody and everyone knew who I was. I told myself that I was going to be somebody in AirAsia and be a mover and shaker.”

Despite her ambitious nature, things were not easy as Tan struggled to adjust to a new country, new working environment and, of course, a completely new industry. There was no more chauffeur-driven BMW, no more golf memberships — instead, it was the arid plains of Sepang day after day, where Tan increasingly felt very much alone since many people were used to reporting to Fernandes and saw her as an outsider.

“It was all very humbling for me. No Singaporean would come to Malaysia for work in those days. After a month, I was struggling and I told Tony that I couldn’t take a salary from him anymore. I sent him an SMS, saying that I wanted to quit. About three weeks in, the sole of my heels had come off after walking on the tarmac and rushing for the train and that was when I felt like I was done. I missed my sports car and my comfortable life, so I told him that I wanted to quit and move back to Singapore. He was in New York, and he replied with these three words: Go change China.”

To this day, Tan feels that Fernandes only told her this because he knew she had handled several Chinese artists during her years at Warner. “Tony wanted to start flying to Macau and we were having issues, so he told me, ‘Go to Guangzhou and get the best airport deal for me. Come on Kat, I believe in you!’ I was already ready to go home, and could quite easily have checked out of the Pan Pacific Hotel with my two bags. But Tony’s words weighed heavily on me, even though I’m quite certain he’s forgotten them by now. So I put down the phone and took the deepest possible breath: I had to commit to staying in Malaysia. This man believed in me and I could not let him down.”

Tan, desperately homesick by this time, took things into her own hands and remembers writing down on a piece of paper all the people she needed to see in order to work out this China deal Fernandes spoke of — and not giving them the option of saying no. “I am Kathleen Tan and you have to see me — that was my stand. I was so clueless and they would all throw around all sorts of industry jargon. I had heaps to learn but I insisted on learning it,” she says.

Tan ordered the largest bilingual Chinese map that she could find and tried to comprehend the magnitude of the job ahead. The Chinese did not quite understand the idea of low-cost airlines, and certainly was not at all used to a woman doing business with them. Tan was an enigma in the industry but the Chinese could not help but be enthralled by this well-dressed and extremely intelligent woman who wowed them with her fluency in Mandarin and her knowledge of local history. Likely, they were also impressed with her ability to imbibe — she once downed 22 shots of Maotai in one sitting.

Within six months, Tan managed to cut her first deal with the Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport — it was one of many to come, and Fernandes was suitably impressed. AirAsia’s footprint in China continued to grow as the company made global headlines as one of the most interesting and dynamic low-cost carriers in the world.

In 2011, AirAsia and American travel company Expedia went into a joint venture that would create new opportunities for both companies in the region, simultaneously transforming the way consumers research, book, plan and share their travels. In 2013, at which point Tan had clocked up nine years as AirAsia’s regional head of commercial, she moved back to Singapore as CEO of AirAsiaExpedia. She learnt a great deal about travel and e-commerce, and would continually share her knowledge with Fernandes.

Tan spent two years with AirAsiaExpedia and then decided it was time for a break. “I was burnt out and I wanted to smell the roses,” Tan says wearily. “I was moving so fast for so long! I’d wake up at 5.30am and sleep at 1am — because the early years were the hardest. I had to educate people in every country we fly to on what low-cost airlines mean and why our flights were so cheap. No one bought airline tickets online then, even though we do it all the time now. This was before social media, so we did everything the hard way. We travelled and explored every destination we went to before we could sign any airport deals. There was so much pushing and convincing to do, and it was exhausting.”

Up to this point, Tan’s marketing and branding chutzpah had been proved time and again. She was the one who insisted on red livery for AirAsia’s planes and a sponsorship deal with Manchester United — something Fernandes especially liked. She even mooted the idea of the 1,000,000 free seats deal. She hired fresh graduates with fresh ideas, and made the AirAsia brand a clever and endearing one.

Her year off was well earned and much deserved, and she returned to AirAsia in 2016 as president for North Asia, but this time, based at home in Singapore. “I wasn’t going to come back, but Tony needed my help,” she smiles.

Today, Tan has become something of a social media sensation in China, with scores of followers on Sina Weibo — China’s version of Twitter. Her followers eagerly lap up anything and everything she posts about, from her favourite eats in Penang to a favoured holiday haunt in Ipoh. “The digital phenomenon has changed the tourism playbook — young people use Instagram and Facebook. When I post a video on Ipoh, I get 145,000 views! So it indicates that the Chinese do respond to things like this,” she says.

Apart from the actual work of conquering China, today, Tan is still adjusting to her return to AirAsia. “The AirAsia I have come back to has changed,” she muses. “You have a lot of young people in high positions now, so it’s about meeting them halfway — they didn’t go through what I did but their challenges are different. The digital space is very different these days but I am glad for my time at Expedia where I learnt about all this. Social media is no more about a still photo but videos and creating compelling content. In China, my job is to build the brand in second and third-tier cities. There’s still a huge amount of people who want to travel and we have a lot of positive things going for us.”

She stops, and thinks for a second. “But as a leader, I want my focus to be building local talent in China. They are very tech savvy and I want to recruit these talents into the company. If you want to be global, you need global talent. Also, in China itself, we don’t want to be a foreign brand that only hires Malaysians — we want to give something back. We want to ensure that the team in China is a strong one, and staffed with native Chinese.”

I notice that we have come full circle — inspired by her own need to fight for local talent, Tan is now in a position to encourage it further. Few people have this opportunity in their lifetime; to recognise a discrepancy in the system and work hard towards fixing it in their own way. Although Tan’s hard work in successfully managing the AirAsia business in China may be what she is known for, it is her passion to grow the human aspect of the business that is most outstanding.