Thai billionaire clan in focus after Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's death in helicopter crash

King Power chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha amassed a net worth of US$3.3 billion (S$4.5 billion) at the helm of the firm, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index shows. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The helicopter crash that killed Thai billionaire and Leicester City football club chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha puts the spotlight on the clan that helps run a duty-free business empire built over almost three decades.

While the Srivaddhanaprabhas are famous for their turnaround of Leicester City, culminating in one of the greatest sports upsets when the club became English champions, the family's fortune is derived mostly from its duty-free giant back home, King Power Group.

Mr Vichai, King Power's chairman, amassed a net worth of US$3.3 billion (S$4.5 billion) at the helm of the firm, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index shows.

The country's record tourism boom drew huge numbers of passengers to the key Thai airports, where King Power is the monopoly provider of duty-free stores under concessions from Airports of Thailand Pcl.

Mr Vichai's sudden death comes as state-run Airports of Thailand prepares a tender to award the next concession for the sprawling duty-free stores at Suvarnabhumi, Thailand's main international airport in the capital Bangkok.

The current concession is due to expire in 2020, and foreign players such as South Korea's Lotte Corp have shown interest in the business.

Reports indicate domestic firms The Mall Group, Central Group and Bangkok Airways are among those that may compete for it too.

Royal Warrant King Power is the largest duty-free retailer in Thailand.

The family also has a minority stake in Thai AirAsia, a unit of Asia's biggest discount carrier, AirAsia Group, according to a company statement released in December 2017.

The family name Srivaddhanaprabha was bestowed upon them by Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and loosely translates as light of progressive glory.

That came after the monarch gave the rare honour of a royal warrant to Mr Vichai, according to the ceremony in which Mr Vichai received an honorary degree from the University of Leicester.

Vichai's son

Mr Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha is chief executive officer of King Power and vice-chairman of Leicester City.

Filings show that Mr Aiyawatt has the biggest individual shareholding after Mr Vichai in the AirAsia unit.

Most of the family's King Power shares are held through Thailand-based V&A Holdings, according to a filing retrieved in June 2016 from Orbis, a database of company information published by Bureau van Dijk.

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Billionaire's family

Mr Vichai's wife Aimon Srivaddhanaprabha is a King Power vice-chairman, the firm's website shows.

Another son, Mr Apichet Srivaddhanaprabha, along with sisters Ms Voramas Srivaddhanaprabha and Ms Aroonroong Srivaddhanaprabha, are also part of the executive team.

Mr Vichai was at the head of a consortium called Asian Football Investments that purchased Leicester City Football Club in 2010.

Under his ownership, Leicester won promotion to the English Premier League in 2014.

The club was crowned champion against overwhelming odds two years later.

"I came to the football industry with Leicester City because of my love for football, and the club and its fans have already repaid me several times over with their passion and loyalty," Mr Vichai said upon receiving the honorary degree in 2016.

Underdog story

The family built a rapport with fans by offering freebies such as beer and doughnuts for Mr Vichai's birthday.

Mr Aiyawatt, known as "Top", took to the victory stage in a televised ceremony after the 2016 upset.

"Hello champions," he said to a cheering crowd. "I think we need a bigger stadium, huh?"

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The underdog story started in Thailand, where Mr Vichai founded King Power in 1989 and won a licence to set up the country's first downtown duty-free shop at a mall in Bangkok.

The company's big break came when it was awarded exclusive rights to run duty-free and tax-free concessions at Thailand's key airports.

The firm also secured the right to manage all other commercial space at Suvarnabhumi airport, which opened in 2006, according to the company website.

Passenger boom

In the first nine months of 2018, almost 80 million passengers came through Suvarnabhumi and the capital's second airport, Don Mueang, another King Power concession.

While tourism growth has sputtered recently, the sector remains a key engine of South-east Asia's second-largest economy.

In April, Mr Vichai and his family acquired assets from the Mahanakhon real-estate project in Bangkok for about US$423 million, which includes a skyscraper billed as the city's tallest.

Mr Vichai navigated Thailand's complex political environment of elections followed by coups, while defending against challenges as he expanded King Power.

Most recently, a Thai court dismissed a case alleging the Thai government hadn't received all the fees due from the operation of duty-free concessions.

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