That changed with Leicester City’s odds-defying English Premier League title in 2016, the unlikeliest of victories in the world’s most watched football league that has gone down in footballing lore.
While he continued to avoid interviews, Vichai was a regular at Leicester matches and his face — and the King Power brand — became synonymous across a football-mad country with the success of Thai business overseas.
Thais on Monday awoke to confirmation of his death — an abrupt end to a global success story in a sometimes inward-looking country.
“He was an inspiration to Thais because he’s well known and very successful internationally,” Chamat Uchukanokkul, 39, told AFP as he travelled to work.
“He showed that we can do anything if we set our minds to do it.”
The well-connected businessman was renowned for his agility in picking through Thailand’s complicated politics — backstage plotting, coups, short-lived civilian governments and legal complications.
Exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who gave Vichai his duty-free monopoly, paid tribute to the entrepreneur on Monday, describing him as “a great businessman”.
“I am honoured and blessed to have known Vichai for all these years and am deeply saddened by the loss that his family has encountered,” the billionaire wrote in a Facebook post.
“His memory will live on forever in the lives of so many that he has touched”, he added.
Influential political veteran Anutin Charnvirakul described his long-time friend as a “Big Brother” and “an idol.”
“He was not a scion of a rich family but a real fighter… he became hugely successful in a short space of time,” he told AFP.
“He was definitely a role model for the new generation, generous and loved by his peers.
“He bought this little football club and helped it to win the championship. He cared.”
Leicester City were unknown to many in the Southeast Asian country before their breakout 2016 season.
But as they closed in on the title the country rallied around a Thai success story, with hundreds attending fan screenings hosted by the company, complete with free beer and food.
At King Power’s downtown Bangkok mall most staff were tight-lipped on Monday — a sign of the sharply-hierarchical company which owns the duty-free concessions at airports and key tourist cities in one of the world’s most visited countries.
But one saleswoman, who declined to be named, said she cried as the news of Vichai’s death broke early Monday.
“I’ve only worked here a year… but I felt he was kind,” she said, explaining Vichai would often walk the sales floor greeting staff as he did his rounds.
“He was a man we must admire… though his last breath is over, his reputation will be remembered forever,” Chutitorn Apichainan posted on the Leicester City official fan Facebook page for Thailand.
British police named the four other crash victims as Nursara Suknamai — an actress and a runner-up in Miss Thailand Universe in 2005 — and Kaveporn Punpare, both members of Vichai’s staff, pilot Eric Swaffer and passenger Izabela Roza Lechowicz.