Chaleo Yoovidhya, the reclusive Thai billionaire who made his fortune in the pulse-fluttering tonic known as Red Bull, died March 17 at a hospital in Bangkok.
Few details about the man Forbes magazine ranked as the world’s 205th richest person have been confirmed in news reports. Announcing his death, the Thai publication the Nation claimed Yoovidhya had not given an extensive interview in more than 30 years. Accordingly, various news outlets have reported his age as either 81, 89 or 90. No cause of death has been determined.
What is known about Yoovidhya is that he was born to poor Chinese immigrants in the northern Thai province of Phichit.
Before he became worth an estimated $5 billion, he had been employed as a bus conductor, fruit vendor and duck farmer.
In 1962, he founded T.C. Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of antibiotics and cosmetics. One of his company’s products was a syrupy energy tonic called Krating Daeng. The beverage was sold in pharmacies as a stimulant for day laborers, weary long-haul truckers and rickshaw drivers.
During a trip to Thailand in 1982, an Austrian traveling toothpaste salesman named Dietrich Mateschitz was amazed by the jet-lag-eliminating properties of Krating Daeng.
“One glass,” he told the Economist magazine in 2002, “and the jet lag was gone.”
Yoovidhya and Mateschitz formed a business together to begin marketing Krating Daeng as a new kind of buzz-inducing beverage.
After tinkering with the recipe — it was Mateschitz’s idea to carbonate it and sell it in a slim silver can — Red Bull was released in 1987.
At first, the product bombed. Trial groups said the drink tasted disgusting and left a sticky feeling in the mouth. (The liquid is the color of gasoline and has a pungent, acidic flavor.)
But Red Bull’s energizing qualities soon won over drowsy office workers and exam-cramming college students. Today, the company sells about 4.4 billion cans a year in 162 countries.
Red Bull is the highest-grossing energy drink in the United States, according to John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.
“Red Bull basically invented the energy drink category,” he said in an interview. “When you drink an energy drink like Red Bull, you get that immediate payoff, that instant gratification. With most other food and beverage products you don’t get that.”
Red Bull’s main ingredients are sugar, caffeine and vitamins. One of the principal ingredients is the amino acid taurine, which was first isolated from ox bile by two German chemists in 1827.
Harvard Business School professor Rohit Deshpande said in an interview that much of Red Bull’s success can be traced to an innovative marketing strategy.
“They in a sense define energy drinks in the same way we may think that Xerox used to define copiers and FedEx used to define overnight delivery,” Deshpande said.
Instead of competing with mega corporate sponsor Coca Cola for advertising time during “mainstream events” such as NFL and NBA games, Red Bull became the leading promoter of “extreme events,” Deshpande said.
One such venture is a cliff-diving competition called the Red Bull Flugtag, where contestants attempt to fly homemade gliders the greatest distance. (A company sales pitch is “Red Bull gives you wings!”)
Red Bull embraced other adrenaline sports, including snowboarding, mountain biking and skydiving. The company is also the main sponsor of two Formula 1 racing teams, including the 2011 season champions.
According to the Nation newspaper, Yoovidhya was married twice and had 11 children.
Although reclusive, Yoovidhya said he was aware of his beverage’s popularity among late-night revelers who often mix it with vodka. The concoction is a staple on the alcohol-soaked MTV reality show “The Jersey Shore.”
“It’s a cult product,” Harvard professor Deshpande said. “It’s more than a drink that gives you energy. People want to be Red Bull.”