£50m to learn some of football is immoral!
QPR chairman Tony Fernandes spent much of last summer hosting Malaysia’s version of The Apprentice.
But if the 50-year-old’s fouryear flirtation with sport is anything to go by, he’s the one who should have been fired.
A self-made entrepreneur with a $650m fortune, Fernandes entered Formula One in 2010 as the principal of Team Lotus, rebranded in 2011 as Caterham F1.
Four years and countless millions on, he has still to see his perennial back-markers register a point.
Then, in 2011, Fernandes bought Bernie Ecclestone’s 66 per stake in QPR. Just promoted to the Premier League under Neil Warnock, Fernandes had visions of using his fortune to turn Rangers into European heavyweights.
Unfortunately, agents saw him coming and demanded top dollar for duds and has-beens and never-weres. The result was a divided dressing room, wretched performances and relegation from the Premier League with £177m debts.
“Tony was new to football, and he took advice from too many people who were trying to manipulate him to make a buck,” says Warnock, sacked by Fernandes in 2012 but still a good friend. “He admits he’d do things differently if he had the chance again, but it was an expensive lesson.”
It is an assessment Fernandes is happy to acknowledge. “I think I allowed myself to be exploited,” he said in the wake of Rangers demotion.
“I was naive in thinking that everyone was like me.You have a one-hour discussion with a player and you think, ‘Yes, he’s going to go out there and die for the club’, because that’s what I would do.”
Fernandes reckons the entire folly has cost him £50m. But while others would have walked away, the Malaysian has stuck around, appointing Harry Redknapp and overseeing the trimming of a squad that is now on the verge of a return to the top flight.
But having built an empire from a single plane, that kind of determination should perhaps comes as no surprise.
The son of an Indian doctor, Fernandes was packed off to boarding school in England at the age of 12. “My father was a nutcase – he shoved me on the plane with a suitcase and £50 in my pocket,” he recalls. “The school was like Borstal but I loved it.”
A talented sportsman, he then graduated from the London School of Economics, ignoring his fathers’ demands to become a doctor to join Virgin Records.
Personally interviewed by Richard Branson, the pair struck up a friendship that has endured to this day. Ironically, Fernandes departed when Branson elected to form an airline, little realising that ten years later he would do the exact same thing.
In 2001, Fernandes acquired Air Asia, then $100 million in debt, for 25 cents. “We had two planes, one destination and 250 staff,” he recalls. “And we have been through every calamity known to mankind – bird flu, tsunami, earthquake, terrorism, airports closed, coup d’etats. You name it, we’ve faced it.”
Yet today, Asia’s original lowcost airline has 92 planes, 7,000 staff and a net income of $111m per annum.
What’s more, tales of Fernandes hands-on ownership are legendary. Every worker, from the mechanics to the pilots, has his personal mobile number.
In 2012, he gave the 263 staff who’d completed ten years with the company rare Swiss watches at a total cost of £200,000.
Last year, hearing that typhoon Haiyan had struck the village of an employee, he paid to rebuild their house. And when a stewardess told him she dreamed of being a pilot, Fernandes paid for her to attend classes, then employed her when she passed.
“Deep down I’m a left wing kind of person and I think you can be a caring capitalist,” he said in 2011.
Perhaps that is why even those he has sacked refuse to stick the boot in.
“He was a great guy to work for,” said Mark Hughes, who succeeded Warnock at Loftus Road. “He didn’t say one thing to the media and another to me. He is an honest guy and he is very open.”
And it is that experience in the airline industry that has convinced Fernandes that this time, the Premier League and its hangers on won’t take him for a mug again.
“Was I successful in the airline business on Day One?” he said. “No. But you learn. I have seen all the parts that make football quite immoral, and we’re a much wiser group of people than we were two years ago.”