Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha made his fortune in Thailand before buying Leicester City for a song. He then helped the club overcome odds of 5,000-1 to win the Premier League. Jane Lewis reports
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was that rare thing in English football: a rich foreign club owner adored by fans. That much was apparent from the outpouring of grief following the Thai billionaire’s untimely death in a helicopter crash last month, following a home game at his beloved club Leicester City, says Stuart James in The Guardian.
Bespectacled and self-effacing, Srivaddhanaprabha, who was 60, was “known for his unerring common touch” – he often dished out free beer and doughnuts at the club’s stadium, says the Straits Times. A devout Buddhist, he brought in Thai monks “to bless Leicester’s pitch”. What mattered most, though, was that he was “the author of one of football’s greatest fairy tales”.
Scooping up a bargain
Having bought down-at-heel Leicester for £39m in 2010, he overcame “overwhelming odds” to secure “the first top-flight title in the club’s history” when they barnstormed to the top of the Premier League in 2016. Srivaddhanaprabha’s “5,000-1 shot” wasn’t just a boost for Leicester, says The Guardian. It inspired supporters of every other “unfancied team” to dream they too might win the league, given a beneficent owner. In the words of former City manager Claudio Ranieri, “everything he touched became better”.
Yet Srivaddhanaprabha could also be “an unsentimental boss” – he fired Ranieri for poor performance the season after the club’s 2016 triumph, says the Financial Times. And the source of his fortune – the murky world of duty-free retail – also hints at a steelier side to his nature. The persuasive and diplomatic skills Srivaddhanaprabha deployed when persuading Leicester star Jamie Vardy to trim the terms of his contract had long been evident back home in Thailand where “he rose from relative obscurity” to “take his place in a class of Bangkok-based oligarchs who amassed vast wealth thanks to their dominance of certain industries”.
Srivaddhanaprabha’s “upward trajectory in business started relatively late”, says The Guardian. Born in Bangkok to a Thai-Chinese family in 1958, he opened his first duty-free shop in downtown Bangkok in 1989 and rode the subsequent Thai tourist boom. But the deal that really put his King Power empire on the map, and cemented his own $5.2bn fortune, wasn’t until 2006, when his friendship with then-prime minister (and one-time Manchester City owner) Thaksin Shinawatra won him the duty-free concession at Bangkok’s newly-opened Suvarnabhumi airport.
A royal seal of approval
Six months later, Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup. It’s a measure of Srivaddhanaprabha’s diplomatic and networking skills that he continued to prosper under successive “military and civilian governments of various stripes”, expanding the group into hotels and aviation. He was helped by royal connections. The awarding of a royal warrant in 2009 was “a commercially valuable stamp of approval in a country where the throne has semi-divine status”.
According to his son Aiyawatt, Srivaddhanaprabha was one of those people who challenge themselves “to get something done”. The challenge he now leaves his own family is considerable. Leicester has been struggling to repeat past glories. And King Power could suffer the loss of its best asset in an auction of Bangkok airport’s duty-free concession in 2020. But to Leicester, Srivaddhanaprabha will always be more than just another transient tycoon, says The Mail on Sunday. He “made a miracle happen”.