One of Asia’s most successful entrepreneurs, Mark Lankester is nothing like his TV persona, writes Kerry-Ann Augustin
HERE’S something you may find disturbing. As a teenager, Mark Lankester used to take the rubber band off his braces, stretch it between his middle and index fingers, and using his free hand, launch the saliva-laden contraption in the direction of anyone in sight.
“Disgusting!” I say with a contorted face and his steady, booming voice morphs into a boyish cackle as he tells me the story behind his childhood nickname, Bansai.
For anyone who doesn’t know anything about Lankester other than his role as Tune Hotels Group CEO and advisor on AXN’s The Apprentice Asia, it’s easy to assume he’s a high-powered, stern person with a perpetual pout.
But the man behind that façade is anything but a glum grump. One of Asia’s most successful entrepreneurs, Lankester’s fun, laid-back demeanour is immediately apparent as he slumps back comfortably into his chair, and we start talking about movies and music. Unlike most men I know, he readily admits to crying while watching Michael Bay’s 1998 flick, Armageddon. “In private, of course,” he adds with a smile, knowing his big secret is out.
But Bansai’s soft side emerges more than ever when he talks about the most “romantic surprise” that his wife has given him — his son Murdoch.
“I never knew I could feel that depth of emotion for someone. If you asked me now if I would stand in front of an oncoming train for my son, I’d do it in an instant. It just surprised me the length I’d go, the pain I’d go through to be the umbrella that protects my child. You cannot possibly understand this feeling unless you become a parent.”
Then with a sly smile, he shamelessly admits to letting his wife play the “bad cop” in their method of parenting. Switching his posture, he sits upright looking pensive and adds: “But I don’t think I can protect him from everything. There are some things such as rejection etc., which he has to go through himself. They are all part of building character”.
If anyone knows this, it’s Lankester. He was 3 when his father passed away. Together with his sister Susan, he witnessed his mother taking up both parental roles at the same time.
“That really made a mark in the way I do things now. I learnt to be independent and responsible at a young age,” he confides.
It’s almost a eureka moment for him, understanding the things his mother did, now that he has his own child. Oddly enough, it’s similar to being an advisor on The Apprentice Asia.
“I look at how these young, brilliant contestants handle their tasks and in the boardroom, I feel like I am looking at my younger self. It’s like ‘Wow, I was there once!’,” he says, his deep voice going up an octave. “I can see the train wreck coming but sometimes you just have to let it happen. I still learn things about myself from seeing these contestants battle it out.”
In AXN’s The Apprentice Asia, Lankester and Kathleen Tan act as advisors to the boss, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes. This is closer to reality for Fernandes and Lankester, who have been lifelong friends and are, to an extent, family.
“I am younger than Tony and back then in boarding school, I just wanted to be one of the cool guys, so I used to hang out with the older boys like him.”
Their friendship as boarding school buddies evolved and they were colleagues at Warner Music. After the success of AirAsia, Fernandes gave his old pal a call to ask if he would run Tune Hotels.
Six years later, Lankester is on top of his game as Group CEO of Tune Hotels (part of Tune Group, founded by Fernandes), with over 30 award-winning hotels across Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and soon, Australia.
I ask Lankester if mixing friendship and work can be toxic.
“He trusted me to run Tune Hotels in my own way — there’s no micro managing so we’re doing our own thing. But the best thing about our friendship is that we can pick up where we left, put business issues aside and just laugh hysterically. We laugh a lot. In fact, sometimes I laugh till I cry,” he says.
Who would look best in the AirAsia stewardess costume if you were part of the bet that Fernandes made with Richard Branson?
“Of course I would. But I think Fernandes’ bottom looks nicer in the skirt!”
Looks like Bansai still loves to sling those shots.
1. First celebrity crush: Karen Carpenter
2. Guilty pleasures: Fine wine!
3. Secret talent: I’m double-jointed. Is that a talent?
4. Biggest musical influence: Quincy Jones.
5. If you were a flavour, you would be?: Sambal belacan — I go down well with people and when they get to know me, they get a taste of me. In short, you either like me or you don’t.