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The Apprentice finds its wings in Asia
Publication Date : 21-03-2013
AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes decides who to fire or hire on the reality show
Nine years after The Apprentice first aired in America, an Asian version is finally hitting small screens here in May. It will air on AXN (StarHub Channel 511). The telecast details are being finalised.
The question though is: Is it too late?
The Apprentice was a hit out of the gate as it dangled the juicy carrot of working for flamboyant mogul Donald Trump. But over the years, its audience has steadily declined from more than 20 million viewers for season 1 (2004) to less than five million for season 10 (2010).
Budget airline AirAsia's founder and group chief executive officer Tony Fernandes, 48, will host the Asian edition and he declares that what has happened in America is "irrelevant".
Speaking over the telephone from Kuala Lumpur, he says: "Asians are not that interested in watching American candidates but are much more interested in seeing a Singaporean candidate or Asian candidate and the local competition is much more relevant."
He adds: "I've never watched The Apprentice, to be honest."
Fernandes says he was initially reluctant to do the show simply because he did not think that he had the right personality for it.
From Trump to The Apprentice UK's British business magnate Alan Sugar to the Italian version's businessman Flavio Briatore, these are personalities whom, he surmises, are "more aggressive on the show".
Indeed, Fernandes comes across as rather soft-spoken over the phone and not someone who would make for explosive TV. He adds though: "I didn't think I was that kind of person but it's funny, when you get in front of the cameras, you try to adapt."
You get the sense though that he is still somewhat ambivalent about doing the show. Asked if they were done filming and he says: "No, we're halfway through, unfortunately."
And after his observation about the other hosts being more aggressive, he adds: "Having said that, I'm in a foul mood right now and so, probably will be damn good at firing someone."
Perhaps there might be explosive TV in store after all.
Fernandes is best known for turning the ailing AirAsia outfit around and trailblazing the rise of the budget airline in Asia.
He also founded the no-frills hotel service chain Tune Hotels in 2007 and is the majority shareholder of the Premier League football club Queens Park Rangers.
All these various business interests fall under the umbrella of the Malaysian entrepreneur's leisure and entertainment corporation Tune Group, which was established in 2007.
Having to juggle a business empire with a TV show is "quite tiring, actually". He notes that previous hosts are at a different stage of their careers whereas he is "slapbang in it".
The launch of AirAsia India was announced last month and it is expected to commence operations in June.
While professing at first that he has no idea how he keeps all the balls in the air, he later adds: "I am probably one of the world's best time managers and I'm getting better at it. You can always manage as much as you want as long as you have good people and you manage your time well."
In his case, these would include people such as chief executive officer of Tune Hotels Group Mark Lankester, 48, and chief executive officer of AirAsiaExpedia Kathleen Tan, 51.
The two serve as advisers to the contestants on The Apprentice Asia and Lankester says in the same interview: "The tasks and challenges are designed to weed out who is a mouse and who is a man."
Fernandes elaborates on the qualities he is looking for: "Fortitude, a determination to be the best, an analytical mind and a good communicator.
"My whole life has been about communication. With a company such as AirAsia, you're communicating with people from all walks of life, all demographics, all intellectual levels and different languages."
More than 30,000 people downloaded the application form online when the call went out last November and 12 were picked to compete on the show. The winner will get to be Fernandes' apprentice for one year and work in one of his companies and, according to the show's website, earn a six-figure salary.
Everyone else, though, will get the dreaded axe at some point. So will Trump's catchphrase "You're fired" be the last thing they hear?
Fernandes says: "You'll have to watch and tune in to see whether I change it or whether I conform."