Grieving company pays tribute to founder Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha

Pilots Eric Swaffer and Izabela Roza Lechowicz were among those who died in last Saturday's crash. Above: A portrait of Leicester City's chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha at the King Power Stadium in the English city yesterday, surrounded by floral t
Players of the Fox Hunt Football Academy from Chaiyaphum in Thailand paying their respects outside the stadium in Leicester.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Ms Nursara Suknamai, a member of Mr Vichai Srivaddhana-prabha's staff, was another victim of the crash.
Pilots Eric Swaffer and Izabela Roza Lechowicz were among those who died in last Saturday’s crash.PHOTO: INTERNET
Pilots Eric Swaffer and Izabela Roza Lechowicz were among those who died in last Saturday's crash. Above: A portrait of Leicester City's chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha at the King Power Stadium in the English city yesterday, surrounded by floral t
Ms Nursara Suknamai, a member of Mr Vichai Srivaddhana- prabha’s staff, was another victim of the crash. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/NURSARA SUKNAMAI

Thai billionaire who built duty-free empire lauded for his kindness, good heart

Tourists chatting in Mandarin roam the gleaming corridors of this retail haven, browsing the Breitlings and Rolexes after picking up vacuum-packed banana chips. Workmen potter around the domed duty-free complex in downtown Bangkok.

Except for the black-clad reporters camped out in front - and two bouquets placed on its grass verge - there were few clues yesterday that duty-free giant King Power had just lost its chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in a helicopter crash in Leicester, England.

In a statement issued yesterday, King Power thanked the public for its support. "The world has lost someone who was kind and always had a good heart, one who was generous, one who devoted his whole life to his family and others, and who sacrificed himself for our beloved Thailand," it said.

"Under his leadership, all of us at King Power always felt at one with his family. At this time of difficulty, we share the grief of the Srivaddhanaprabha family."

Outside the team's King Power Stadium, Mr Vichai's son and widow laid a wreath as tributes poured in from fans.

Four other people died in last Saturday's crash, including two members of Mr Vichai's staff - Ms Nursara Suknamai and Mr Kaveporn Punpare - pilot Eric Swaffer and his girlfriend Izabela Roza Lechowicz, also a pilot. Ms Nursara was an actress and a runner-up in Miss Thailand Universe in 2005.

British investigators said they have recovered the helicopter's flight data recorder.

 A portrait of Leicester City's chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha at the King Power Stadium in the English city yesterday, surrounded by floral t
 A portrait of Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha at the King Power Stadium in the English city yesterday, surrounded by floral tributes. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mr Vichai, said by Forbes to be worth US$4.5 billion (S$6.2 billion), built his fortune from a duty-free monopoly at Thailand's international airports. He bought Leicester City Football Club in 2010 and was credited with turning the second-tier outfit into a Premier League champion. Leicester City's 2016 stunning victory whipped up Thai interest in the club. Its merchandise is displayed prominently at Suvarnabhumi airport, where King Power is the master concessionaire for commercial space.

A King Power employee, who declined to give her name, told The Straits Times outside the complex: "He didn't come into this building often, but every time he did everyone was excited.

"He was always smiling. Though he barely talked to us, we could feel he was a kind boss. We are paid well and treated well here."

Mr Panumet Tanraksa, 47, a Manchester United fan who began supporting Leicester City recently, regards Mr Vichai as an "idol".

"He not only was the billionaire who owned an English football team, but he also had a football academy that allowed Thai youth to train in England," he said.

"Many Thai billionaires have bought teams or shares in English football teams but none of them have been as successful as Khun Vichai."

The 60-year-old Mr Vichai rarely gave media interviews, was well-connected and influential. In 2009, King Power was granted a royal warrant, something conferred on companies deemed to have made great contributions to the nation. In 2012, then King Bhumibol Adulyadej bestowed on him his current family name, which replaced his former surname, Raksriaksorn.

In the past decades, the company has attracted some controversy, with critics raising questions about the manner in which its concessions are granted and run.

Last year, then anti-graft official Charnchai Issarasenarak filed a private lawsuit against King Power and executives from state-owned Airports of Thailand (AOT), which operates the country's airports.

He accused King Power of under-declaring its revenue and not paying the state 14 billion baht (S$583 million) in levies. Last month, a Thai court dismissed the case on the basis that Mr Charnchai could not sue because he was not an affected party.

King Power's concession at Suvarnabhumi airport expires in 2020. The AOT is expected to hold an auction for the concession later this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2018, with the headline 'Grieving company pays tribute to generous founder'. Print Edition | Subscribe