December 28, 2014 2:44 PM EST

As soon as AirAsia Indonesia confirmed that Flight QZ 8501 had been lost, the company’s CEO Tony Fernandes took to Twitter to express his dismay

The spotlight is nothing new for Fernandes, the 50-year-old executive from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In addition to building Asia’s most recognizable budget carrier, the airline executive has cultivated a high-profile image, becoming something like Asia’s version of Richard Branson, the British billionaire who runs Virgin Airlines.

When Fernandes took over AirAsia in 2001, the airline had two planes and millions of dollars in debt. Fernandes, who had no previous experience in the airline industry, joined with a group of investors to buy the airline for about 25 cents. Fernandes, who had previously worked in finance for Branson’s Virgin Records, mortgaged his home to make the purchase possible.

Read More: Q&A: AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes on Hosting The Apprentice and Hating Check-In

“It was like the messiah had shown me the way,” Fernandes told TIME in 2013. “I thought ‘Right, this is my destiny – I’m going to start an airline.”

In a short time, Fernandes transformed the airline into a budget carrier offering no frills service at prices that could compete with Malaysian flag-carrier Malaysia Airlines. Now, with subsidiaries like AirAsia Indonesia and AirAsia India, it carries millions of passengers each year to more than 80 destinations.

Building the Asian budget carrier Fernandes amassed considerable wealth, $650 million, according to Forbes. And, following in Branson’s footsteps, Fernandes has diversified his portfolio with investments in showy personal investments. Fernandes co-owns an English Premier League soccer team, the Queens Park Rangers, along with a Formula One racing team.

Fernandes’ entrepreneurial success also translated into an enviable public following. The CEO shares updates from his day on Twitter, where he has nearly a million followers. In 2013, he played Donald Trump’s role on the Asian version of The Apprentice.

“I’m amazed at the success of the show,” he told TIME last year. “The best part I enjoyed was seeing 12 kids fighting their guts out…It gave me a lot of encouragement that the future of Asia looks great.”

Now, with his airline plane missing over the Java Sea, Fernandes will bring his public leadership style to the search more than 160 missing people who were flying his airline. On Friday, the CEO left for the Eastern Java city where the missing flight began.

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Write to Justin Worland at

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