Benyamin Ismail: propelling AirAsia X to success

Benyamin Ismail is the CEO of AirAsia X Berhad – long-haul budget airline based in Malaysia and a sister company of AirAsia, the largest low-cost airline in Asia by fleet size and destinations.

Prior to joining the low cost carrier, Benyamin spent eight years in the investment banking industry which matched with his academic background in business, having earned his Master and Bachelor degree in Commerce and Electronic Commerce from Curtin University of Technology and Edith Cowan University, Australia.

Aside from the oversight of operation, Benyamin has a pivotal role to grow the airline’s business, making it one of the leading companies listed on the Bursa Malaysia, the stock exchange in Malaysia.

Benyamin spoke to Advance and shared how the education in Australia has equipped him with a solid foundation for career growth.

You previously worked in the banking space, why did you make a career shift?

Indeed, I had been working in the investment banking industry for the likes of CIMB Investment Bank and Maybank Investment Bank, and had always thought I would one day become a successful businessman like my father – never an airline CEO.

It was only by chance that I was introduced to Tony (Fernandes) and Din (Datuk Kamarudin Meranun), the founders of AirAsia.

Both of them took a chance on me, and I joined AirAsia’s corporate finance and investment team. They mentored me, which is by far the best part of my career. Tony and Din are extremely passionate in what they do, and are inspiring leaders, for me and the 20,000 Allstars at AirAsia.

What’s the most challenging and rewarding aspect of your job?

In the airline business, there is never a dull day and like the entire team, we’re learning new things every day.

When I became the CEO of AirAsia X, it was a fairly turbulent time. The airline was struggling financially, and as a result the workforce was quite demotivated. We needed to get back to basics – so focussing on developing a commercially viable model was my mission. It was challenging.

The good news is, we’ve learnt from that experience and are now in good-shape to face what lies ahead.

For me, it’s in my team. As a CEO, it becomes extremely rewarding to know that my team have learnt how to manage and solve challenges together. Having the right foundations in place for a viable long haul airline and pave the way for future success I am able to just observe, rather intervene, which is great.

Of course, I’m lucky to have such a highly capable bunch of people around me who have been able to bring out the best of our people’s skills and knowledge. This translates to great outcomes for our guests and also our shareholders.

How competitive is the aviation industry? How do you make sure that Air Asia X stays ahead of its competitors?

Simplicity, passion and focus are key words that spring to mind.

Low-cost airlines have very disciplined cost structure, particularly when it comes to fleet and fuel management and distribution of fares.

On top of that, we run an efficient operation and network that works cohesively to maximise the utilisation of our A330’s.

Lastly, it comes down to our people, who we encourage to ‘think outside the box’ and create great memories for our guests. We know our guests are often price sensitive so we have to be creative in terms of offering choice and value-adds.

Why did you choose Australia as your education destination? How was the experience?

The two main reasons i chose Australia as a place to study was because of its reputation for having good quality education and family.

My sister and a number of my cousins studied in Perth so it was a good choice. Perth is also closer to home (Kuala Lumpur) so it was easier to get home if i ever felt homesick.

How did your Australian education help to advance your career?

I grew up with hard-working parents, which I think motivated me to work harder.

Looking back on my education in Australia, and what it taught me in both an academic sense and from a life skills perspective, the value of hard work stands out.

Being in boarding school and living alone helped me to grow as a person. Having to work part time jobs in Perth also taught me about the value of money, and how to save.

What do you miss most about Australia?

I will have to say peace and quiet. It’s much more laid back and calm in comparison to Kuala Lumpur.