BANGKOK: It took just 30 minutes for Leicester City’s Thai billionaire owner to decide to buy the English football club in 2010. It now looks like an inspired investment.
The club was struggling in English football’s second tier at the time. It has since won promotion to the premiership, and, remarkably, sits at the very top of the world’s richest league with over half the season gone.
Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal are all chasing hard, but in one of the sport’s biggest surprises of recent years, the giants of the national game can’t catch a team that many had expected to be dragged into a relegation scrap.
For the owner, duty free magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the priority is to ensure the club from central England and its supporters do not get carried away.
And while his son and club vice chairman, Aiyawatt, prefers to keep discussions on football and money separate, Leicester’s ascent brings with it plenty of business opportunities.
“Anything can happen, so we need to keep our feet on the ground,” said Aiyawatt, who runs the club from “behind the scenes” while his father makes strategic decisions.
“It doesn’t just depend on us,” he told Reuters in Bangkok. “The big teams are not doing well … That’s why middle or small teams can make some difference. This season is a bit unusual, but it’s quite good for football in England.”
It could also be good for King Power, the travel retail company Vichai founded in 1989 that employs more than 10,000 people, dominates major airports in Thailand and has branched into restaurants, hotels and solar power.
Vichai, a self-made businessman whose personal fortune is estimated by Forbes at $3 billion, wants to use Leicester’s growing international appeal to boost Thai brands abroad via a new online business under development.
“People around the world know this website through Leicester City Football Club which several billion people watch closely already,” Vichai told reporters recently. “We will use this channel to make our website known.”
King Power is aiming for revenues of 85 billion baht ($2.4 billion) in 2016, a 25 percent increase from 68 billion baht last year, although the www.kingpoweronline.com website is still only a small part of that.
WHERE DID IT ALL GO RIGHT?
Leicester’s performance means the 100 million pounds or so ($140 million) that Vichai and his family have poured into the club so far will reap dividends more quickly.
With premiership survival all but guaranteed, Leicester can plan ahead on surer footing.
Next season will bring the biggest payday yet for Premier League clubs thanks to a record-breaking 5.1 billion pound television deal with Sky and BT that runs from 2016 to 2019.
Champions Chelsea received 99 million pounds last season while even fourth-placed Manchester United secured a payout of 96.8 million.
A finish in the top four means a tilt at the Champions League, qualification for which is estimated to be worth another 40 million pounds.
“We are getting a significant amount of international attention and are on the radar of more international companies,” said Ian Flanagan, Leicester City’s commercial director. “We are the good news story of the Premier League this year.”
Aiyawatt, nicknamed “Top”, puts the success down to old-fashioned family values.
“It’s the culture that we brought to the team,” he said, when asked to explain Leicester’s improvement.
“It’s the Thai culture. We give our time to the staff, the players, and to the manager. We try to manage it like a family, try to listen to the problems of every single member of staff.”
The owners have avoided supporters’ animosity that marked some foreign forays into English football, including the purchase of Manchester United by the Glazers from the United States.
Another wealthy Thai, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, took over Manchester City between 2007 and 2008.
Although he reportedly sold it at a profit, his involvement was cut short and he was sentenced to prison for graft. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile and maintains his innocence.
There have also been canny player signings and managerial appointments at Leicester, whose success has helped it make up ground on traditional football powerhouses in Thailand.
On the rooftop of a Bangkok shopping complex during Leicester’s recent match against Liverpool, about 200 people gathered to follow the game.
“I’m very proud to see them grow to this level,” said 39-year-old Tanaporn Meesrisom, who was in the crowd.
“The fan base will definitely grow. I used to be a Liverpool fan, but now I’m rooting for Leicester to win the championship.”
According to an interview last year in a local luxury magazine, Vichai, one of Thailand’s top 10 richest men, studied in Taiwan and the United States as a child.
His interest in the duty free business began during his school days in Taiwan, because flights back to Thailand stopped over in Hong Kong.
“As I grew up I saw duty free businesses from all over the world. I found it an interesting business … so I said to myself I might be able to do it,” Vichai told Praew Magazine.
He began as an agent for luxury brands before investing in a duty free business in Hong Kong that he eventually acquired.
According to Praew, he developed contacts at home and won lucrative concessions to run duty free shops from Airports of Thailand, the mainstay of his private company.
The country’s king bestowed on Vichai and his family a new surname, an act seen as a great honour in the Southeast Asian country where the monarch is highly revered.
Vichai’s passion for sport, particularly polo and football, led him to England and a shirt sponsorship with Leicester City. He came then to acquire the club for a reported 39 million pounds.
“The day that we bought the team, I can say that we made a 30-minute decision,” said Aiyawatt. “It’s something that we love. We went to the stadium, and we loved the crowd.”
The first big leap for the club and its owners came in 2014, with promotion to the top division after a 10-year absence.
“Money-wise, that would only come when we were in the Premier League so we pushed a lot of money, time and effort to make it happen,” Aiyawatt recalled.
An equally tough test will be to turn this season’s early form into more lasting success.
Commercial director Flanagan is realistic.
“It will take a couple of years before we figure out if this is a one-off season and if the old hegemony reasserts itself.”