Thailand’s 6 coolest self-made millionaires

Thailand’s 6 coolest self-made millionaires

All over the age of 50, these wealthy Thais managed to rise from the masses to build some pretty hefty fortunes

While the world may tend to think of Thailand chiefly as a vacation destination, it is, of course, home to a US$300 billion economy and a population of more than 67 million.

Though most of today’s top money makers come from old weath, the country’s laidback atmosphere has given rise to a few serious entrepreneurs.

Here are Thailand’s six coolest self-made millionaires –- and in a couple of cases billionaires -- all over the age of 50.

1. Chaleo Yoovidhya: Giving the world its wings

Red BullChaleo Yoovidhya is the cofounder of Red Bull, in which he owns a 49 percent stake. In 2009, the company had US$4.4 billion in sales, with the caffeine-rich, super-sweet mixture popular with ravers, nightclub denizens, and tired workers the world over.

Red Bull made its debut in 1987, and now enjoys a significant market share among energy drinks. Its expanded product line now includes small “energy shots” and even sugar-free versions of the drink.

Chaleo, age 78, is one of Thailand’s richest citizens, with a net worth that "Forbes" recently estimated at some US$4.2 billion.

You might not know: Red Bull was based on Chaleo's very own Thai energy drink Krating Daeng, which means roughly -- you guessed it -- “red bull.”

2. Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi: The brewer

ThaibevCharoen Sirivadhanabhakdi's ThaiBev, or Thai Beverage Public Company Limited, is one of Southeast Asia’s biggest alcohol producers. The company is perhaps best known for producing Beer Chang, the potent, elephant-adorned brew that has wet the whistles of countless Thais and launched a million backpackers’ “Chang-overs.” 

ThaiBev is also a sponsor of English Premier League team Everton Football Club, and Chang’s iconic pachyderms adorn the club’s shirt. ("Chang" is Thai for elephant.)

The company also produces the local firewaters Sang Som and Mekhong rums (the term “rum” is used loosely here), as well as the inexpensive brews Archa and the German beer-inspired Federbrau.

Charoen is estimated to be worth more than US$4 billion -- not bad considering the 66-year-old is the son of a fried mussel pancake vendor. 

You might not know: Charoen also reportedly owns Bangkok’s Pantip Plaza, where gadgets of every stripe can be purchased.

3. William E Heinecke: Expanding waistlines nationwide

William HeineckeWhen you see restaurants like Dairy Queen, Burger King and Swensen’s in Thailand, you have one man to thank -- or curse -- in the name of globalization: William E. Heinecke.

The 61-year-old founded his company, Minor Group, in 1967, and now owns more than a thousand restaurants and 27 hotels in Thailand and throughout the Asia Pacific region.

Other brands his company controls in Thailand include the Marriott, the Four Seasons, Pizza Company and Sizzler.

Thailand has been good to Heinecke: he is thought to be worth $425 million. Heinecke was born in the U.S. but his family moved to Thailand when he was a teenager. He is now a Thai citizen.

You might not know: The resilient Heinecke beat Pizza Hut at their own game. He bought the Pizza Hut franchise in Thailand in 1980 but had a contract dispute with its U.S. parent company.

Pizza Hut then closed in Thailand, but Heinecke built a new company -- Pizza Company -- using Pizza Hut’s old store locations. The result: he captured some 70 percent of Thailand's pizza market in just six months.

4. Kraisorn Chansiri: Baffling brains with 'Chicken of the Sea'

Chicken of the SeaKraisorn Chansiri, 75, is the founder of Thai Union, one of the world’s biggest canned tuna firms. The company is Thailand’s biggest producer of canned and frozen seafood and last year became a truly global force by purchasing European tuna canner MW Brands for $860 million.

Kraisorn is worth an estimated $430 million.

You might not know: There was a Thailand connection when Jessica Simpson wondered aloud, on her TV show several years back, whether cans of "Chicken of the Sea" contained chicken or tuna. That brand belongs to Thai Union. (And yes, it’s tuna.)

5. Vichai Raksriaksorn: The king of duty free 

Vichai Rakriaksorn is one of the younger members of our list, and at age 52 he’s amassed a cool US$180 million fortune.

That’s thanks to you, me and everyone else who’s shelled out hard-earned dough in Thailand’s King Power tax-free shops. The outlets are in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, as well as airports in Chiang Mai and Phuket; there’s also a downtown Bangkok shop. 

You might not know: Thailand’s ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- also a self-made man -- grabbed headlines when he bought the English Premier League side Manchester City in 2007, though he has since moved on from the club. 

But Vichai is a lesser-known soccer owner: he and his consortium of investors took the helm of Championship side Leicester City last year. And interestingly, the manager of the club is currently Sven-Goran Eriksson -- who managed Manchester City under Thaksin. What a tangled web we weave.

6. Tan Passakornnatee: Mr Oishi 

Oishi TanTan Passakornnatee, 51, is the founder of Oishi Group, famous for its extremely popular Japanese restaurants.

There are Oishi sushi buffets, there are Oishi “expresses,” there are Oishi ramen bars, there are Oishi teppanyaki, and more. There’s even an Oishi green tea brand. And Tan isn't even Japanese.

Malaysian-born Tan started out as an unskilled laborer at 17 before purchasing his first business -- a newstand --and eventually moving into real estate. He lost it all in 1997, then rebuilt his fortune starting with a chain of wedding studios. (Read his full story here.)

A few years ago Tan sold the Oishi brand to Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, owner of ThaiBev and number two on our list. He stayed on as CEO until last year.

He has since embarked on other restaurant and drink endeavors through his new company, Mai Tan. Though Tan's net worth is unknown, according to the Bangkok Post he is now investing 2.4 billion baht (US$78 million) in a beverage production plant in Ayutthaya to create his own functional drink brand.

You might not know: Tan is a strong believer in giving back. Until he reaches the age of 60, half of Mai Tan’s net profits will be given to his Tan Pan Foundation, which will focus on education and the environment. 

Newley Purnell is a freelance journalist in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the New York Times, on AFP, ABC News Radio,, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, and more. He has been blogging at since 2002.

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