Bangkok - The duty-free billionaire behind Leicester City's
Premier League title is a hit with fans and royalty alike -- and he now stands
to cash in on one of football's greatest fairytales.
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 $2.9 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 $7.4 billion TV deal will be several times more than Vichai first paid
for the club.
Leicester supporters quickly warmed to Vichai after he
bought the then Championship strugglers for an estimated 40 million pounds ($58
million) in 2010.
Also read: Ranieri closes in on Hollywood ending with Leicester
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
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.
- Father figure -
"The success of Leicester city, it's because of Mr.
Vichai," said Thai FA 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
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
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."For
the latest on national news, politics, sport, entertainment and more follow us
on Twitter and like our Facebook page.