When crowds gather outside a football ground to demonstrate their feelings about a chairman, hostility is usually in the air. This was definitely not the case with Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai billionaire who oversaw Leicester City’s remarkable rise to Premier League champions, but then the 60-year-old was no ordinary club owner.
The thousands who came to lay flowers near the site of the helicopter crash that claimed the life of Srivaddhanaprabha and four others near the King Power Stadium were honouring a diminutive, humble, media-shy but hugely popular Buddhist who transformed Leicester as a team and made a significant impact on the wellbeing of the city and county.
Claudio Ranieri, the manager who in 2016 led the Foxes to their first, wildly implausible English Premiership title, spoke for many when he said of the man who eventually fired him: “Everything he touched became better.”
The name Srivaddhanaprabha, which means “light of progressive glory”, was bestowed by the King of Thailand in 2012. Born Vichai Raksriaksorn into a Chinese Thai family in Bangkok, he initially enjoyed a modest business career in Hong Kong before returning home to open a downtown shop selling handicrafts. When, in 1989, he opened a pick-up point for customers at Don Muang, then the country’s international airport, it was the first time a company selling duty-free goods had been permitted at an airport.
King Power Group, as he named his company, expanded to operate duty- and tax-free businesses in the country’s major airports and in city centres. Building on its core retail activities, “Kuhn Vichai” (which translates colloquially as “Mister Vichai”) added theatre, restaurant, hotel and in-flight businesses, which grew to the extent that he employed 10,000 people. His elevation to the super-rich bracket (his fortune was estimated at £3.8bn) came in 2006 after he was awarded exclusive rights to sell duty-free goods at the new Suvarnabhumi airport.
Srivaddhanaprabha’s love of polo was well known yet, like many compatriots who followed the Premier League on television, he also adored football. In 2010 he led the Asia Football Investments consortium, which included his son Aiyawatt, which paid £39m for Leicester, who had been promoted from the third tier of English football 15 months earlier. The following February he became chairman, declaring: “It is time for a new chapter to be created.”
After a 10-year absence, Leicester returned to the top flight in 2014. In a rare interview in Bangkok, Kuhn Vichai set a target of finishing in the Premier League’s top five within three years. Until the last month of 2014-15 they were in bottom place but survived after winning seven of the final nine matches, prompting observers to recall how he had flown in Buddhist monks to bless the players and the pitch.
The miracles continued. In 2015-16 Leicester became English champions under Ranieri – ahead of the mega-rich elite from Manchester, London and Liverpool – after starting the season as 5,000-1 no-hopers. Kuhn Vichai bought 19 BMW i8 sports cars at £100,000 each as a thank you to the triumphant squad. They went on to reach the last eight of the Champions’ League, although modest domestic results saw the chairman belie his avuncular image by sacking Ranieri in February last year and successor Craig Shakespeare in October.
Fans continued to revere him for gestures such as giving away 60 season tickets and free drinks and pies on his 60th birthday. The wider public appreciated a £2m donation towards a new children’s hospital, a £1m gift to the city’s university medical department and £100,000 to help fund the reburial of Richard III.
Srivaddhanaprabha, who also owned the VR Polo Club in Bangkok and Belgian second division football team HO Leuven, seldom gave interviews. However, in 2016, before he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Leicester for his contributions to civic life, King Power released a statement which offered an insight to his character. “I feel very fortunate because I do what I love,” he said, “so I put love into everything I do.”
He is survived by his wife Aimon and their four children.
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, businessman, football club owner and philanthropist, born 5 June 1958, died 27 October 2018