WITH a black backpack slung over his right shoulder, he walks towards an empty check-in counter at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 in Sepang. His steps are light, his demeanour is happy.
From afar, or even up close, he looks like a guy heading for a holiday. Donning a graphic tee, blue jeans and a pair of black-and-white Vans skating shoes, few would have guessed that this is RIAD ASMAT, the man who handles more than 6,000 employees at the AirAsia headquarters in Malaysia.
The New Straits Times catches up with the chief executive officer of AirAsia Malaysia en route to Don Mueang, Thailand.
A very determined guy who is also lucky to get all these opportunities in his lifetime to experience multiple industries. I was a pretty naughty and very adventurous kid when I was small. My parents allowed me to explore the neighbourhood and were pretty open when it came to friends I hung out with in the neighbourhood. In fact, my two friends, who are brothers living in front of our house, are pilots with AirAsia. The younger brother was here when I joined the company, while his brother joined us about a year ago.
WHAT’S YOUR ROUTINE?
Pretty fixed to a certain degree. I wake up at 6am. After my Subuh prayer, the first thing I look at are the previous day’s reports. This allows me to take action for the day. Then I get ready for work. I sometimes take breakfast, sometimes I don’t. But most of the time, I’m more eager to just get into the car and get to work by 9am at the latest. And the day goes on with meetings. If I don’t need to fly, then the majority of my time is in KL, and at the airport too. I do my walkabout to have a look at operations, to get feedback from customers as well as our own people to make sure that everything is well engineered at the end of the day.
ANY HIDDEN HOBBIES?
I like to draw to calm myself down, to release tension and relax, which is why I carry a notebook in my bag. I’m still a bit old school. I still like pen and paper, maybe it is an age thing. I think notebooks are still very much important in my life. Every year, I have a new notebook, so I just scribble and take notes on places I visit to remind myself about work and the nice things about that destination. Because, you know, when I go back to the place for a holiday and any experiences I get from that perspective, I like to keep it for my own knowledge or to share with my family. Maybe I will write a book one day.
WHAT’S A LUXURY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?
Time. It’s something that you can’t do without whether you like it or not. Sometimes people don’t take it too seriously. I’m lucky that my parents taught me the value of time. It’s something that I appreciate, especially when working in an industry where time is also very crucial. Everyone has a plan somewhere. That’s why I appreciate time even more now. So time is something of a luxury that we can’t always have. But we strive to achieve it at all times.
NAME THREE THINGS NOT MANY KNOW ABOUT YOU
My education background. I think people would be surprised by the fact that a communication major could be in engineering-based industries — automobile and aviation. My degree is in public relations and I minored in marketing. I continued two years of Masters in Organisation Communication.
I used to play rugby, even with my size. I’m from SM Bukit Bintang. We were runners-up in the MSSS Selangor. I continued to play all the way to university in the US. And I played for Kalamazoo Rugby Football Club in Kalamazoo City, Michigan.
I’m OCD. Not too bad, but more on cleanliness. Anyway, if things are not aligned, I can get a bit annoyed.
YOU STARTED IN THE AUTOMOBILE INDUSTRY AND NOW YOU’RE LEADING ONE OF THE WORLD’S BIGGEST AIRLINES. WHY THE SWITCH?
I think it’s just the opportunity. I was in the automotive industry when the previous managing director invited me to do a bit of national duty with Proton. And I was from an MNC (multinational company). So I thought, why not grab the opportunity and experience it? It continued all the way to England when I was given the opportunity by Tan Sri Tony Fernandes to run a Formula One team, Caterham F1 Formula One team, with which I continued the whole automotive experience, not from manufacturing, but the motorsport side of it.
Coming back about 4½ years ago, I joined a local conglomerate and began to broaden my perspective by looking into property development, the F&B (food and beverage) business and others. Why aviation? One, probably because I’ve never done it. Two, I was given the level of confidence by the shareholders.
WAS IT HARD TO ADAPT TO A NEW LIFESTYLE?
It’s been rather pleasant. My experiences working with Tony and my automotive experience made it easier for me to be in aviation. It’s been pretty similar across all industries.
You’re always dealing with people. So across all industries, it is pretty uniform. The difference in this particular industry is that it is the most regulated industry that I have ever experienced, very complex. At the same time, I appreciate it very much because we are responsible for people’s lives at the end of day. Quality and safety are of the utmost importance. So I guess adapting wasn’t too hard for me. But one little thing I must highlight is the fact that the AirAsia culture is so different, so welcoming. And it was very easy for me to be part of it.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE FACING THE AVIATION INDUSTRY?
It’s becoming a very competitive environment as people now have the means to fly. I think the challenge will always be supply and demand. And for us, our prospect of growing the network is always a priority on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.
AirAsia is a company that looks at opportunities. We fly to second- and third-tier cities, places people don’t usually fly to. We’ve made successes out of them. And I think it’s a challenge to continuously be competitive in that sense when, at the same time, the world is changing in many, many ways.
This is why we’re looking at the digital approach on things. You guys now buy tickets online as people are moving towards the ease of purchasing tickets. So we are now looking at the challenges of how to make sure that our customers are cared for or are comfortable with us in terms of embracing our products. So that is one challenge that I think is real.
THIS LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AIRASIA AND MALAYSIA AIRPORTS HOLDINGS BHD. WHAT IS AIRASIA FIGHTING FOR?
I think we need to clearly understand each other’s roles in the industry. Our determination to grow can be easily aligned with anybody, we just need the right facilities and right support. Other countries, for example, are much more open to embracing changes in the industry.
Like Don Mueang Airport in Thailand, where we’re going to demand a dedicated airport for low-cost carriers. Also the same in Terminal Two of Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta. So it’s not just about AirAsia. It is about the industry that is changing now. When you look at the low-cost models and the carriers that are now crowding the industry, they’re the ones carrying the passengers in the region, or Asia, even as far as Europe or America. So it’s a change in totality. And I think it’s important that we all have an understanding on what we’re trying to do for the betterment of the business, industry and countries.
WHAT’S THE SECRET TO YOUR SUCCESS?
I think being able to grab opportunities as they come is really important. And I think it’s part and parcel of my advancement. I never shy away from challenges. I’d rather try it and fail than not try at all. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The bottom line is, grab it when it comes to you and give it a try. You’ll never know how it works out. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because that’s how you learn. But make sure you don’t repeat them.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR FAILURES
I’ve made mistakes in job selections, moving from one job to another too quickly and out of emotion. All of those emotion-based decisions have helped me to always keep my emotions in check — that’s not easy to do. There was one point in my previous job when I slowly lost friends when the company was downsizing. It was emotionally hard; I was in the communication part of the team, so I would know when it was going to happen because I needed to prepare the company for the eventuality. At that point, emotions could take over and you make bad decisions. In working life, there are going to be many types of things that will affect you as an individual or as a team, but how you control and manage it is important. I still get affected by it, but I’m much better at approaching it.
ANY TRAVEL HACKS?
Buy early! Get your tickets as early as three months ahead. Some people I know buy their tickets six months ahead and they get the best deals. The sooner you buy, the better the deals. I understand last-minute planning and all, and I applaud that. I can never do that. I come from a family of planners and my wife does all the planning when it comes to our trips. And we always get the best deals.
Travel-wise, always check the airport you’re going to. Some airports are easy to get into from the check-in to the boarding gates. Others, like klia2, can be a bit of a walk so you need to spend more time. It’s all about time management.