Football: Canny, connected Thai tycoon Vichai behind Leicester's meteoric rise

Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (centre) at the end of the game.
Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (centre) at the end of the game. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - The duty-free billionaire behind Leicester City's English Premier League title is a hit with fans and royalty alike - and he now stands to cash in on one of football's greatest fairy tales.

Polo-loving Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, 58, rubs shoulders with celebrities and his surname, meaning "light of progressive glory" was bestowed by Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But the bespectacled Thai tycoon also displays an unerring common touch, dishing out free beer and doughnuts at Leicester's King Power Stadium, where he lands his helicopter in the centre circle.

Despite his popularity, Vichai remains enigmatic as he rarely gives interviews, preferring to let his son, Aiyawatt, known as "Top", act as the family frontman.

"He's (Vichai) a successful businessman and he tried to challenge himself to get something done," Top, Leicester's vice-chairman, told AFP in Bangkok last month. "He said, I think two or three years before, that he wants the team to be a success in the Premier League, and now we are."

 
 
 

The avuncular Vichai has carefully navigated Thailand's treacherous political waters of recent years, while taking his King Power empire from strength to strength.

He has built an estimated fortune of US$2.9 billion (S$3.9 billion) since establishing King Power in 1989 - starting with a single shop in Bangkok.

With the company name emblazoned across the Leicester shirt and stadium, Vichai is now well placed to leverage football success into global recognition for his brand.

And as Premier League champions, Leicester's share of next season's US$7.4 billion TV deal will be several times more than he first paid for the club.

Leicester supporters quickly warmed to Vichai after he bought the then-Championship strugglers for an estimated £40 million (S$ 78.7 million) in 2010.

The devout Buddhist is a firm believer in the power of karma, flying in Thai monks to bless Leicester's pitch and give their players lucky amulets.

And while pumping tens of millions of pounds into the team, club debt and infrastructure, Vichai has spent judiciously.

Leicester's success has been crafted from teamwork and endeavour, and the astute leadership of manager Claudio Ranieri, rather than an expensive squad of stars.

"The success of Leicester city, it's because of Mr Vichai," said Thai Football Association chief Somyot Poompanmoung, who has known the billionaire for more than 30 years. "He takes care, or he looks after his players, or his team, like a father looking after his children. He is very close to the players."

Vichai rose from relative obscurity, flourishing during the last decade of political upheaval in Thailand, a country where big contracts follow political loyalties.

King Power hit the jackpot in 2006 when it won the duty-free concession at Bangkok's cavernous new Suvarnabhumi airport, and with it a captive market of tens of millions of travellers.

In 2007, a year after ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Manchester City's former owner, was dumped from office in a coup, Vichai saw off legal moves to break his duty-free monopoly.

In a kingdom where connections count, Vichai now firmly belongs to the royalist establishment that turfed out Thaksin. His family received its royal surname in 2013.

"On the political side, any business that could win long-term government concessions in Thailand would not lack for political know-how," said Pavida Pananond, an academic at Thammasat University's Business School in Bangkok.

"The fact that Khun Vichai is often seen with celebrities and royalties, Thai and international, confirms that his contacts list is hard to match," she said, using his Thai honorific.

Before football, Vichai's first sporting love was polo,the pursuit beloved of the international elite, and both he and Top are accomplished players.

Vichai boasts a lifetime membership at London's Ham Polo club, frequented by the British royals, and has a stable of horses and players on retainer in Bangkok.

"Khun Vichai is very smart," said Sak, a Thai employee at the cavernous King Power mall in downtown Bangkok. "He is making Thailand very proud."