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Rusdi Kirana, who placed a $24 billion Airbus order watched by French President Francois Hollande, has blazed a trail from teenage typewriter salesman to airline boss courted by leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.
Together with a $21 billion Boeing order witnessed by U.S. President Barack Obama barely a year ago, the sums spent by his Indonesian low-cost carrier, Lion Air, would easily cover Europe’s new bailout of Cyprus — even after steep discounts.
Yet despite receiving the kind of welcome in France normally reserved for heads of government, the publicity-shy billionaire is not one to swoon at the sight of a red carpet.
“I am glad to be here but I am more interested in the housing I am building for my staff and their families,” Kirana told Reuters after inking the deal in an ornate reception hall.
The 49-year-old has now placed record orders with both of the big two global jet manufacturers, but until recently flew economy class himself and prefers to talk about his modest upbringing and simple lifestyle.
“I prefer flying economy but sometimes it makes my suppliers uneasy. I don’t want to upset the manufacturers,” Kirana said.
It is not always easy to know when Kirana is being serious.
Apart his shock of black hair, full moustache and boyish grin, he remains something of an enigma — and his brother Kusnan even more so. Together they started Indonesia’s largest domestic and low-cost airline with just one jet 12 years ago.
While Lion Air’s expansion is grabbing attention worldwide, the company still faces difficulties with its image.
It has a reputation for delays and is still banned by the European Union over safety concerns under a watchlist that originally included all Indonesian carriers.
Kirana says this is unfair.
“It makes no difference to whether I buy Airbus aircraft, but I hope things will keep going forward,” he said.
Airbus has dispatched safety advisers to the airline, and diplomats expect the ban to be lifted in due course. The European Commission is due to review its list at mid-year.
Lion Air has around 45 percent of Indonesia’s domestic market and its bargain prices serve its motto, “We Make People Fly”. But to fulfil a dream of grabbing a 60 percent share it desperately needs more pilots and technicians.
In an interview with Reuters last year, Kirana displayed a drawing of his “Lion Air Village,” designed to include dormitory accommodation for 3,000 people and 1,000 small homes next to Jakarta’s airport.
Now he says he is housing 10,000 people including employees’ families, with the building work 90 percent finished.
He talks passionately about the social benefits but industry observers say housing staff near work also makes sense in the traffic-clogged Indonesian capital.
He himself has houses in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, but recalls the days when he went hungry at school and earned $10 a month selling typewriters, meaning he now eschews extravagances such as using his company’s private jet.
Kirana started out as a teenager selling American ‘Brother’ typewriters. His real-life brother put him through school. They set up a travel firm together, then the airline in June 2000.
Three months later Rusdi Kirana flirted with the idea of selling for $1 million, but says his wife talked him out of it.
The two brothers and co-owners contemplated floating the company for more than $1 billion last year but postponed the offering due to choppy markets. If the flotation goes ahead in 2015 as planned, the airline would have to open up its finances.
“We don’t like to show people a lot, we just want to work,” Kirana said at a lunch in Singapore a year ago. “You can call my bankers. They won’t finance a company that isn’t very good.”
Bertrand Grabowski, head of aviation at German bank DVB , said it had financed several planes for Lion Air and was “very impressed” with its growth. “I am very confident that Lion will grow further to be a successful regional airline.”
Still, some in the industry are worried that low interest rates and Western export credits are helping Asia’s low-cost airlines flood the market with airplanes.
Kirana is also a prime example of what one financier called “key man risk” — CEOs who are so hands-on that there are fears over what would happen without them.
It’s a feature he shares with his arch-rival, AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes, who recently placed a large Airbus order under the gaze of UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Both have planemakers and politicians falling at their feet. But while Fernandes bathes in the limelight as a sports team owner and prolific Tweeter, Kirana rarely gives interviews.
“Our fight is in the market place,” he said last year.
(Editing by Alex Richardson and Charlotte Cooper)