CEO in tune as ‘Apprentice Asia’ advisor

Mark Lankester fits the job as ‘Apprentice’ advisor to big-boss Tony Fernandes


SUITS HIM FINE. Part of what makes ‘Apprentice’ watchable is advisor Mark Lankester. Photo by AXN

MANILA, Philippines—On television, particularly in the business-oriented reality series, “The Apprentice Asia,” Mark Lankester can seem rigid in stance, curt in speech, stern in demeanor.

In person, however, he comes off as approachable and relaxed, as media folk saw at the recent viewing party in Makati for the show’s 7th episode. He wasn’t even wearing a stiff suit when we met him, going for the casual shirt-and-jeans combo that is de rigueur for the international value-hotel chain Tune Hotels, of which he is CEO.

“I smile more often in real life,” he quips. Such wit is rather typical of Lankester, somewhat up there with a sarcastic comment he made of a bedsheet-challenged “Apprentice” contestant two episodes back: “I don’t think Sam [Samuel Rufus Nallaraj of India] has ever made a bed before in his life.”

Lankester may be new to the realm of weekly television but he is certainly no novice in the business world.

From 1992 to 2004, he handled managerial to senior regional posts across Asia for Warner Music Group — rising from being the record label’s general manager in his native Malaysia to regional director for new media and business development for Warner Music Asia Pacific.

He had also been the managing director-CEO of Triband Asia Sdn Bhd, tackling the so-called wireless and wireline worlds, and was the CEO of Dragonback Media Interactive Sdn Bhd, delving into online gaming.

For the last six years, he has been the group CEO of Tune Hotels, which marks his latest industry transition: from music to gaming to hospitality.

Tune Hotels — which has four hotels in the Philippines and more underway — also happens to be part of a conglomerate cofounded by Tony Fernandes, the AirAsia group CEO, “Apprentice Asia” host and Lankester’s compatriot and childhood friend. They even went to the same school.

“Tony forced me to join the show,” Lankester jokes about being one of Fernandes’ two “Apprentice” advisors (the other being Expedia Asia CEO Kathleen Tan). In an earlier interview, Lankester deemed his “Apprentice” stint a good break from his daily routine, though he did attend to actual business matters while shooting on location in either Malaysia or Singapore the past summer.

“The Apprentice Asia” is the latest offshoot of the US program, “The Apprentice,” hosted by real estate mogul Donald Trump and originally having George Ross and Carolyn Kepcher in what are now Lankester’s and Tan’s advisory roles. (“Apprentice Asia” director Robin Trump, by the way, is not related to The Donald, says Lankester.)

This Asian edition, as with all versions of the international “Apprentice” franchise, is executive-produced by series creator Mark Burnett. Lankester thinks his “Survivor”-creating namesake “went with Tony Fernandes because Tony transcends countries” — an apt quality, considering that the “Apprentice Asia” roster represents a total of 7 nations. 

“The timing of ‘The Apprentice Asia’ is absolutely right. Asia is finally coming on to its pedestal. The Philippines, for example: tourism is astounding and business is coming in.”

READ: What does ‘Apprentice Asia’ tell us about Asian business styles?

The Kuala Lumpur-born 47-year-old, whose mother is Malaysian-Chinese and father, English, says with pride, “The show has allowed us to communicate with our potential customers and to see the fantastic talent across Asia, not just among the contestants but also among the thousands who applied. To be part of the show, not only with Tony and Kathleen but also among the best professional young talents in Asia, is truly an amazing experience. As an advisor, you are actually in the midst of all that happens but from a little bit of distance. That allows you to see what’s happening around the contestants and the train wrecks on the way.”

So what does he think of the show’s Filipino contenders, the just-eliminated Celina Le Neindre and the still-competing Jonathan Allen Yabut?

“Jonathan has got a very sensible way of thinking, about marketing, product, the target market,” says Lankester. “Celina is a great people person. She can command an audience and work in various industries.” The CEO also says his Manila trip last week — his first in two and a half years — was for catching up with the two contestants, alongside his frequent trips to London for Tune Hotels’ expansion.

At this point, it’s not yet known if Yabut would last until the very end of the show (the finale is on July 31) or if there would be a season 2 for the series itself. But the suave-voiced Lankester, who credits this radio-DJ-worthy faculty to “cigarettes and whiskey,” is sure of one thing: “I don’t care where you’re from, whether it’s Jakarta, Cagayan de Oro or Davao. Everyone can be successful. Everyone can be the next Tony Fernandes.” –

‘The Apprentice Asia’ airs in the Philippines on AXN every Wednesday at 9 p.m. Replays are on Wednesdays, 11:50 p.m.; Thursdays, 2:30 p.m. & 8:10 p.m.; Saturdays, 9:15 a.m. & 9 p.m.; and Sundays, 3:35 p.m. & 11:50 p.m.

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