Idris Jala and why he is so good

18 Jun

A while ago I wrote a post titled: Idris Jala and the Firefly. The post was written just after the Firefly announcement. I was with a client who was berating how stupid a move it was and I was trying to explain why it was not a stupid move. Up to now my arguments in support of firefly have been built on assumptions until this morning.

The Star had and interview with Idris and this is what he said:

He explained that one of his projects was for his staff to brainstorm their way out of problems that were before them.

“We have them cooped up in a room for hours where they have to find the formulae and solution to a real-life problem affecting MAS.

Asking people to do the impossible and not fearing to fail is important, says Datuk Idris Jala

“It is a pressure cooker situation and I tell them that they have a limited time to find the answers. I also remind them of the line in Hotel California.

“Almost all of them came out with the answers after being put into a live laboratory situation,” Idris said, adding that there had been 50 live laboratories held so far.

He revealed that the new airline Firefly was a live laboratory for MAS.

“Whatever we learn from this community airline on reducing cost, we will apply to it at MAS,” he said.

Getting the people to think outside of the box and to reinvent the way they do things to improve efficiency, reduce cost and improve service is the heart of Idris’ talent-unleashing plan.

“Causing people to do the impossible and not fearing to fail is important,” Idris stressed several times in the interview.

As an example of how he had applied this to MAS was the appointment of Eddie Leong as the Firefly managing director.

“I chose him because he is a single-minded person and not because he knows everything about running an airline.

“His strength is his focus on a specific project and I am playing up to his strength.

“He is very lethal. I don’t want an all-round fellow. I wanted someone who will cut down the costs and I have seen him in action when the Four Seasons Hotel was being constructed in Langkawi,” said Idris, adding that there were many who questioned his choice.

Leong, an accountant by training, was the project manager for the Four Seasons project and is credited with having the hotel complex completed within cost.

Idris said every leader must stay focused and state their personal stand “as this says a lot about their character.”

“To be a leader in a business turnaround one must make it a moral obligation. It is very obsessive and will even consume your life.

What make Idris so good at what he does is partly because of who he is and the way he carries himself and partly the way he has been trained – and as can been seen he is bringing in to MAS disciplines that have come from Shell.

Transformation / turnarounds is a process that can be learned and can be duplicated across companies and businesses because the core issue of a business – or “the business of the business” for every business is just about the same.

Keep on going Idris as you are the best example to show that there is no problem too big that cannot be solved and that you need not rely on a whole bunch of consultants telling you what to do.

Instead its all about engaging the entire organization in a process that focuses on first understanding “what constitute value” and second mobilizing the organization in quest of this value.


Posted by on June 18, 2007 in Business, Leadership, Transformation


27 responses to “Idris Jala and why he is so good

  1. A loyal MAS retiree

    June 24, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    Hi, I am a MAS Retiree. I read your posting with great interest, which encouraged me to add a few of my thoughts/feedback.

    Whilst I shared the same joy of seeing MAS now being rescued, I am somewhat disturbed with what I have been hearing from my old colleagues who are still working in MAS.

    Contrary to popular belief, Datuk Idris Jala didn’t pull through the turnaround successfully alone.

    In fact, my friends in MAS told me that Datuk Idris depended heavily on Eddy Leong all this while to make his business turnaround a success! Eddy Leong was recruited to head Datuk Idris’ Turnaround Management Office (TMO) which was set up to plan, strategize and execute all of Datuk Idris’ turnaround effort. In fact, the entire TMO are run Eddy’s own friends and ex-colleague!! No wonder it works… one voice, heart and mind!

    Through my conversation with ex-colleagues, Eddy Leong is actually the REAL mastermind behind some of the largest initiatives in turnaround MAS:

    1. The much talked about excess baggage collection, in which airport staff are rewarded for being ruthless in collecting excess baggage fees, I am told that Eddy Leong is the architect behind the whole reward scheme.

    2. Idris prides himself on the successful revenue increase of over RM1b, which contributed to the bulk of the turnaround. Guess what? It was Eddy Leong who ran the route revenue increase scheme, cracking his whips away at the commercial folks. Along the way, he managed to settle some old scores with people who made life difficult for him before. In fact some of the country managers were removed based on Eddy’s lobbying and recommendation. Talk about power!

    3. According to sources among the travel agents, Eddy also single-handedly came up with the travel agent incentive scheme which further contributed towards the revenues. The commercial team was never good at creating workable reward scheme, so Datuk Idris sought after Eddy’s help to mastermind it.

    4. One of the most hyped project codenamed “Omega” was also headed by Eddy. It was a project to enhance the Network and Revenue Management Department so that MAS gets more revenue via pricing adjustment. It is a widely known fact that Eddy engaged a whole lots of external Mat Salleh consultants to assist him… so much for Datuk Idris’ remark earlier “I will not use external consultants…” What a load of B.S. For awhile, there were rumors that Eddy was to replace Bernard Francis, the existing Head of Revenue Management.

    5. And now comes the most famous project of them all: Firefly – the ultimate secret weapon against Tony Fernandes’ Air Asia.

    Once again, Eddy has convinced Datuk Idris that in order to make Firefly a success, Idris has to make Eddy the Managing Director. The appointment came as a shock because Eddy is less than 35 years old and whilst there are plenty of highly experienced senior managers in MAS, Datuk Idris gave Eddy one of the most important and high profile position in MAS.

    Recently, there was a major management shakeouts. Some of the staff on the way out are conveniently Eddy’s old arch-nemesis. Could Datuk Idris have removed the management personnel based on his own discretion or based on the influence of Eddy? One could only speculate.

    These days, no one can or dare to touch Eddy. His words are as good as Datuk Idris’. Whoever is in Eddy’s way are said to be targetted for the slaughter machine.

    In fact, some of the MAS staff are now grumbling and even made remarks like
    “…Who is Idris without Eddy…”
    “…One can’t helped but to think that Datuk Idris is completely being manipulated by Eddy…”

    This disturbs me greatly!!! I can only pray that MAS is indeed in good hands.

    Well, in the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter who is the real man behind the MAS show, as long as MAS returns to its glory days… but my instinct tells me that there are more than meets the eye in this case.

    God bless MAS.

    • SMDS retiree....

      June 18, 2009 at 12:55 am

      Dear Loyal MAS retiree,
      although i have never work with MAS before, but i do work under Mr. Idris Jala (although i’m just an old SMDS technician) and i do believe MAS now is in a good hand. although your points about Mr.Eddy might be true (or not), we do need to look at the whole business. have you ever think what it must’ve been if there’s no new management (i assume you do understand that i meant Idris Jala is the new management) take over, MAS might goes bankrupt right now. this is because most businesses can go bankrupt if there’s no fresh ideas and if we still hold on to things that we assume these people just want to have power within MAS, then how can MAS develop? even General Motors can go down. as for the age issues (you did mention eddie is less than 35), although older people do have loads of experiences, that doesn’t mean younger people can’t be a very very very good Managing Director. what is the use if the Managing Director is 60 years old, and yet he can’t really manage? after all….. bill gates founded microsoft at the age of 20. so do think about it sir. as a Malaysian…. i do hope MAS will achieve more than it’s history…

    • Pat

      August 12, 2012 at 10:38 am

      The credit still goes to Idris Jala because he know to choose the rightman for his tasks regardless of race. All M’sia GLC run into trouble because all the top men are bumi and they refuse to get people base on merit, asyik mahu cari “orang kita”. A good CEO is the one who think most for the company than race, you should be shame for being a failed MAS retiree and helping the current incorporative MAS staffs trying to tarnish Idris Jala . The same credit go to Pak Lah bcos he choose Idris Jala, though I dont like Pak Lah !

  2. mindspring

    June 24, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    A loyal MAS retiree:
    It is always great to be able to get insights from people who know the inside. And I think the purpose of blogs is to provide an open forum so everyone to express himself.
    It would be great if you can direct other MAS people here for their comments to be heard.
    As for me, I want MAS to succeed for selfish reasons like:
    a. Its no fun flying from NY to Singapore, then wait 2 hours to catch a connecting to KL…
    b. There is nothing like being away from home for a week or so, knowing on your return flight you have some good halal satay waiting for you…
    c. Somehow or other, you will bump into a friend on a MAS flight
    d. MAS has just got very very nice people on board, on the ground..
    So to me no matter what the Singapore girl does, I will still go MAS…. thats until now where the fare differentials are getting so horrendous!

    BTW: Do try to get to know Idris. He is good guy and MAS couldn’t be in safer hands. After all, Munir has piped down hasn’t he…..

  3. Silhoute

    July 1, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Of course you cant expect Idris Jala to do it alone. He is a lonely figure going into an unknown territory and could even be a hostile one. He will need someone the like of Eddy Leong to execute his plan immediately. And it seems to have worked nicely.

    I beleive most senior managers in MAS are dead wood. Otherwise they would have made some beneficil changes themselve. Anyway if they are good they will be noticed and will contribute to MAS. Most managers are happy with a Bee Em each which Idris himself declined and make do with a Proton Perdana. Those Bee Ems are expensive.

    Experience in aviation is not necessary as shown by Tony Fernandez. Sometimes business acumen and gut feeling helps.

    MAS was a dead horse after it was stripped bare of all of its assets. Thanks to TDM privatization of MAS by TDM. Anybody who can bring back a dead horse to life must be very good. It is not easy to manage such an entity with almost 18,000 staff (before MSS). All the more so when its own chairman was purported to be flying around on official duty taking up 1st class seat which otherwise could be sold for revenue.

    Airasia retrenched their staff too when they stop having their town offices when they found out that sale by online could be profitable. MAS followed suit. All this is sound business practise which you must carry out just to survive.

    Lots of mistakes were made when staffs were recruited by MAS. No stringent measures were taken such that many couldnt find employment in ever expanding Airasia after MSS. Lack of height, unable to speak English well are some of the reasons why Aiasia cant take the ex cabin crews from MAS. Cant blame Airasia because they set a high standard and criteria for their cabin crew. Some pilots employed have attitude problem especially those from the armed forces. Unfortunately the good pilots are enticed away by Arabian Airlines with offer of high pay.

    So to me, Datuk Idris Jala is needed by MAS and the Country to ensure that MAS wont be extinct and will finally be weaned off from government subsidy.

  4. Mike O'Neill

    July 2, 2007 at 10:57 am

    Yes viewing MAS from Perth I think the airline is well on its way towards greater heights if you ask my opinion, well on the way to taking on SQ, CX and EK more.

  5. Alsaid

    August 3, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Whatever the loyal MAS retiree has said, I think it is Idris Jala’s leadership that makes Eddy Leong performs. Try putting someone else as the head of MAS………..

  6. CWL

    April 29, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Even Eisenhower needed good generals to win the day.

  7. hh

    September 12, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    In Mr. Jala’s how affected will the substations be??
    If so what will be the plan to help them recover??
    (substations wopuld mean mainly GSA’s)

  8. mindspring

    September 14, 2008 at 10:44 am


    can you please re-clarify your question….

  9. hh

    September 15, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    cost cutting techniques and re-engineering pricing stratergies.
    HOw will this affect GSA (general sales agents). will their margins erode or will there be some mechanism to protect them.

  10. mindspring

    September 15, 2008 at 6:21 pm


    Frankly I don’t know what the answer to your question in relation to MAS.

    In general, as people get more and more used to buying through the internet, even if MAS did nothing, volume will shift from agents to the internet. GSA’s will really have to reinvent their business model.

    I hope this helps.

  11. hh

    September 17, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    yeah that would help to a great deal.. thank you..

    But one more question,
    Any suggestions to a reinvention of a business model???
    what are the areas that may need change?
    is it ticketing, sales, cost structure…etc.

    Appreciate your help on this!!

  12. mindspring

    September 17, 2008 at 5:17 pm


    Just off the top of my head: If you want to stay in the business you have to change your positioning. The internet has taken over the ticketing function and because of cost and efficiency and paperless tickets, it will be hard to beat the internet. The limitation of the internet is that it can only sell tickets and standard packages.

    What the internet cannot do is anything that is non standard such as providing advisory services or pulling together customized travel experiences. Relative to the general travel market, I would suspect that the customized market is fairly small but probably more lucrative.

    In simple terms I would get out of being a travel agent and become a travel planner….

    My business model is you give me you budget and destination, and I will work out the travel plans for you, including hotels, cars rental, sightseeing, where to etc, handle changes in plans, rebooking for flights etc. For the busy executive, tying to do this in his own i simply too time consuming and their PA’s don’t really like doing it. You become like the travel PA to these busy people and you make a fee as a percentage of the total travel cost.

    I hope this helps…. and good luck.

  13. hh

    September 17, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    thank you very much…more like a slight related diversification
    soundsa good though.

  14. hh

    September 19, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    I thank you very much, as we are evaluating your idea, and think its gonna come out good!!!!

  15. mindspring

    September 19, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Hh, may Allah bless you venture in this blessed month.

  16. hh

    October 8, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Eid Mubarak to you,
    what is the worlds most reknown performance appraisal scheme practiced? is it the balance scorecard approach?

  17. mindspring

    October 8, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    HH, Eid Mubarak to you too…

    The good news for you is that I “specialize” in the are of strategy, people and performance therefore I can answer you question with some authority.

    The best performance management system is one that is focused on your P&L and that your employees understand. In fact I tell people to discard the concept of Performance Management and to embrace Managing for Performance.

    Scorecard etc are all tools. Dont get too hung up on it. The most correct “tools” are sometimes the most simple ones and a lot of my clients are stunned at how some really simple concepts can deliver huge results.

  18. hh

    October 15, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Dear Guru,
    I take your points very seriously, & thank you for your immediate response. i would also want to know methods on how to cut costs efficiently.. and also want to kno if that should also be based on pnl line items. what i need is some efficient ways, not the traditional ways of job cuts.
    P:S is it ok if i ask this question under this topic or should i start a new 1.
    again i thank you for your prompt advice!!

  19. mindspring

    October 15, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Assalamualaikum, brother I am no guru. All things that are good are from Allah and the negatives from me.

    To answer your question there are a number of aspects to cost cutting.
    1. is removing cost.
    2. is removing jobs.
    3. is removing people.

    There are essentially 3 types of cost in a business:
    a. productive cost – cost that is incurred which in return produces revenue
    b. non productive cost – cost that is incurred simply to support the business (e.g. auditor/ secretarial fees, licenses)
    c. wasteful cost. cost that should not even be incurred. (simple example is cost of news papers, non trade magazines… most of it can today be accessed on line)

    Look at all your costs with a unbiased pair of eyes and decide if it is a. b. or c. This that fall into C. immediately stop it.
    Those that are in a. , think of how to make the cost more productive – better bang for the buck – for the same RM1 how to produce more revenue
    Those that are in b., think of how to reduce the cost.

    Then there are jobs and people. While most people see job and person as the same, try to separate the two.

    In your company – there are jobs, then there are people doing the jobs.

    Examine each and every jobs to see if the job:
    a. produces sales
    b. is needed simply because you are in business (e.g. billing and collecting)
    c. is there for some other reason.

    Those jobs in C can be eliminated quite quickly, those jobs in B can be made more efficient and and those in A more productive – all through technology, job redesign, etc.

    The hardest part is people. Step number 1, i reiterate is to loo at people, simply as people – not what they are doing.Just as people. Then test them to see which criteria they meet:

    1. Very good attitude, very capable (This group you keep)
    2. Very good attitude, can be developed (this you train up)
    3. Poor attitude, very capable (manage then on a very very short leash and tell them their either improve their attitude very quickly and move to category 1, if they are incapable of improving attitude, they will fall into category 4)
    4. Poor attitude, un-capable (this you say bye bye)

    Do not feel bad. The category 4’s don’t deserve you and you don’t deserve them. Let them go and usually they will find a place where they fit in much better. They will be happier and so will you.
    The category 3’s are the hardest to deal with, they are good so you need them but they have poor attitude. In all my years running and turning around businesses, I have met many category 3’s – trust me they are more a liability than an asset but you will only realize this after they are gone. I have also had category 3’s that did change attitude and boy, did they fly.

    Finally the BIG mistake people make in tough times is cut cost for the sake of cutting cost. The real issues in not cost, but cost productivity. In tough times you must improve cost productivity. You may be better increasing sales commissions and paying more to your dales team to grow revenue, then to cut their commissions to lower cost, but they also “tarik handbrake.”

    Allahualam, I hope this helps. All the best to you.

  20. hh

    October 17, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    thank you very much for that detailed replr despite you being soooo very busy.
    i believe all that is true, and we have decided to centralize most of our costs to receive better rates. also we are trying out other methods like you say, to reduce costs through innovative thinking and efficient methods rather than cutting them for the sake of cutting’em

  21. hh

    December 8, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    may allah give you success and happiness in life..
    eid mubarak!!!

  22. mindspring

    December 8, 2008 at 10:26 pm


    Salam Eid Adha to you too and may you be always in Allah’s blessings. How’s your business transformation coming along?

  23. Bill Gate

    March 7, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    I think one day Idris Jala and i will set up one Airline company in Sarawak. We want to beat MAS and AirAsia. It is a Dayak Airplane company….
    Well, after all it is a free country i think after the the election 2012..right!!!!
    Don’t have to deal with those which is Irrelevant….like najib said la….
    Ha ha…..No joke man…..
    Why blame others if you think you can and confident…!
    Malaysian punya orang memang tak open minded…!!!! Kalau pasal rasuah haaaa…
    baru open minded….”U kenyang, i kenyang, sama-sama diam” This is the culture of orang Malaysia……Patut la tak maju-maju.

    • mindspring

      March 7, 2010 at 2:55 pm

      I think elections will be much earlier than 2012!

  24. Hay

    February 13, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Datuk Idris Jala is hero in my brain. and i am learning from you a lot.

    Thank You/Rgds,


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