SINGAPORE - The return to normal life after Covid-19 has thrown up some big winners, like the world’s most popular energy drink – and the family that brought it into being.
Scenes across the globe show how Red Bull is benefiting, from revellers in Singapore gulping the beverage at the first ZoukOut music festival in four years to commuters on London’s packed morning trains choosing it over coffee.
Red Bull posted record revenue in 2022, selling more than 11 billion cans and giving it the biggest market for the category.
The Yoovidhyas, the Thai family that invented it, have added US$7.8 billion (S$10.4 billion) to their fortune since January 2022, the biggest gain of any Asian dynasty, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
They were worth more than US$27 billion as at March 14, the majority coming from their stake in privately held Red Bull.
Most of the world’s richest families lost money in the market turmoil of the past year.
“Energy drinks have become synonymous with an active lifestyle,” said professor of sport and geopolitical economy Simon Chadwick at Skema Business School in Paris.
People exercising again and going back to the office to work longer hours “will require energy drinks”, he added.
Mr Chaleo Yoovidhya, the scion of the family, came up with the highly caffeinated beverage in the mid-1970s when he was selling medications in Thailand and decided to expand into consumer goods. He named it Krating Daeng, Thai for “red bull”.
During a trip to Asia, Austrian marketer Dietrich Mateschitz discovered the drink helped him ease his jet lag.
The two teamed up to found Red Bull in 1984 and turned it into a global brand that now also has football and auto-racing teams, as well as sponsorships in extreme sports like mountain biking and cliff diving.
It has benefited after the pandemic, from being sold more than competitors in bars and restaurants, according to Mr Kenneth Shea, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.
“Red Bull is among the most successful lifestyle marketers in consumer goods,” said Mr Howard Telford, senior industry manager of soft drinks at consultancy Euromonitor International. That “allows Red Bull to maintain a strong, premium identity in a thriving category for functional beverages”.
The Yoovidhyas control 51 per cent of Red Bull, while the remaining 49 per cent belongs to Mr Mateschitz’s son, who became Europe’s richest millennial after his father’s death in 2022.
The company, based in Austria, has mostly been run by the minority shareholder.
The Thai family also owns TCP Group, the giant that produces the energy drink in Thailand and other Asian markets.
The family has had its controversies.
In 2012, Mr Chaleo’s grandson Vorayuth was involved in a hit-and-run case while driving his Ferrari in Bangkok, leaving a police officer dead.
The heir, also known by his nickname, Boss, avoided prosecution by fleeing Thailand on a private jet in 2017. He and his family have denied all charges, and Thai officials dropped them three years ago.
That sparked a boycott of Red Bull products in the country and forced the Prime Minister to order a review of the case that led prosecutors to indict Vorayuth on two fresh charges.
The statute of limitations on one of them – drug use – has already expired. The remaining one, reckless driving causing death, is set to run out in 2027.
Vorayuth’s whereabouts remain unknown.
“We know that in this case, the Yoovidhyas will get away,” said Associate Professor Yupana Wiwattanakantang at the National University of Singapore Business School.
The family is waiting for people to forget about it, she added.
TCP Group declined to comment on the family’s wealth and the investigation.
Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General did not respond to requests for comment.
There is also increasing spotlight on the family’s wealth in the country, where it and two other clans – the Chearavanonts of conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group and the Chirathivats behind Central Group – are worth more than US$69 billion combined, equivalent to 14 per cent of the 2021 gross domestic product.
Thailand’s per capita income was less than US$7,100 that year.
And questions remain about who will take over the business.
TCP Group is currently led by 53-year-old Saravoot, Mr Chaleo’s son with his second wife, and all its directors are part of the family.
While the clan owns the entirety of the shares, none of the third generation – heirs to the fortune – is involved in running the business.
They might pass the group’s management to external professionals, Prof Yupana said.
On the Austrian side, Mr Dietrich Mateschitz’s son Mark stepped down from running Red Bull’s organics unit when his father died, removing himself from the business’ day-to-day operations. He picked a new management committee to lead the company.
The next generation will also have to deal with challenges ranging from growing competition to concerns over market-dominance abuse in Europe and a years-long trademark dispute in China.
But for now, Prof Chadwick says there is reason for optimism about the company.
Red Bull has redefined “what it means to be an energy drink”, he said.
They have portrayed “these drinks as not something you drink when you are ill, but something you drink firstly for energy”, he explained.
And “I think we are going to see this post-pandemic explosion in exercise and health and fitness”. BLOOMBERG