Duck Farmer to Billionaire: Red Bull Co-Founder Dies

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Matichon Newspaper / AP

Thai billionaire Chaleo Yoovidhya, who created the renowned Red Bull energy drink three decades ago, died of natural causes at the age of 89 on March 17, 2012

With a caffeine-filled concoction originally targeted at Thailand's rough-hewn working class, Chaleo Yoovidhya, who died of natural causes in a Bangkok hospital at age 89 on Saturday, created something most Thai entrepreneurs only dream about: a global brand.

Chaleo's Red Bull beverage is widely regarded as the first energy drink to win over consumers from Asia to the West after it began international marketing and distribution during the mid-1980s. Its success turned Chaleo into a multibillionaire, Thailand's third richest person at the time of his death with a fortune estimated at $5 billion. His business empire included a pharmaceutical company, a hospital chain, a winery in Thailand and two international soccer teams: the New York Red Bulls and the Red Bulls Salzburg in Austria.

A one-time duck farmer who was born to a poor Chinese immigrant family in northern Thailand in 1923, Chaleo first found success importing antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. In 1976 he blended his first batch of Krating Daeng (Red Bull), and within two years it displaced all other rivals as the top-selling energy drink in the country. Krating Daeng became extraordinarily popular as the Thai economy began to industrialize, and Chaleo pitched his beverage to once sleepy farmers who had become truck and taxi drivers, factory and construction workers.

His son Saravudh told English-language newspaper the Nation that by targeting blue collar workers outside Bangkok, Chaleo distinguished himself from the market leader at the time. "Red Bull pushed into the provincial market first, gaining a foothold by distributing free samples to truck drivers. [My father] stressed on brand building — a marketing strategy that had not been widely employed up to that time,'' he said.

In 1984, Chaleo forged a partnership with an Austrian marketing whiz named Dietrich Mateschitz that took Red Bull global. Its popularity expanded exponentially after bartenders and mixologists in Europe and the U.S. began blending it with various alcoholic beverages. As a Thai-developed consumer product with international appeal, Red Bull far outpaces its closest competitors, Singha and Chang beers.

"I never heard words like difficult or impossible from my father,'' Saravudh said. "He dedicated his life to his work and never complained that he was tired." Chaleo married twice and had 11 children. His funeral is being preceded by bathing rites, a Thai Buddhist tradition before cremation, sponsored by Thailand's royal family, a high honor for someone not born into the aristocracy.