Bill Heinecke

This U.S. native runs a worldwide business empire from Thailand, including food and hospitality chains and a private jet company.

American-born William (“Bill”) Heinecke is chairman and founder of Bangkok-based Minor International (formerly Minor Holdings), which owns more than 30 companies and has been a global leader in the food and hospitality business for almost 50 years. A naturalized Thai citizen, the 72-year-old has a global staff of 60,000 and a net worth estimated to be around $1.85 billion. 

His portfolio includes over 530 hotels and resorts across six continents. Most operate under his own brand names, but his conglomerate also owns three Four Seasons hotels in Thailand as well as that country’s St. Regis and JW Marriott hotels. In addition, it owns 2,300 restaurants, including the Coffee Cup chain, which has more than 400 locations in Australia and more in Thailand and the Middle East; and 447 retail stores (primarily selling fashion and lifestyle products) in 62 countries. Heinecke is a joint owner of MJets, a private jet charter company in Thailand and Myanmar that operates a Cessna Citation X, a Cessna Citation Bravo, a Gulfstream G200, and a Gulfstream V.

He has received a Trailblazer Award from the Asian Business Leadership Forum and is the author of The Entrepreneur: 25 Golden Rules for the Global Business Manager, whose first rule is: “Find a vacuum and fill it fast, before someone else does.”

Born in 1949 in Quantico, Virginia, Heinecke experienced a peripatetic childhood. His father, who became a U.S. diplomat, moved the family to Japan in 1952, Hong Kong in 1956, Malaysia in 1960, and Thailand in 1963. 

From a young age, Heinecke wanted to be independent; so, at 17, while still in school, he persuaded the editor of an English-language newspaper to let him write a weekly column on go-carting in exchange for selling advertising space. A year later, he became the publication’s advertising manager. And the year after that, he borrowed $1,200 and founded an office cleaning service and a radio advertising company (which he later sold to Ogilvy & Mather). In 1967, he founded Minor Holdings, naming it that because he was still a minor.

His philanthropic involvements include the Heinecke Foundation, which supports education for less-fortunate children; the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which seeks to improve the welfare of captured elephants and protect wild elephants; and the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation, which helps rejuvenate the turtle population in Thailand’s Sirinath Marine National Park and the surrounding ecosystem.

When not running his businesses or doing charity-related work, Heinecke drives cars from his private collection, which includes vintage Ferraris, Mercedes-Benzes, Maseratis, Jaguars, Porsches, and Lamborghinis. He is also an avid pilot. He lives in Bangkok with his wife, Kathleen, to whom he has been married for 53 years, and has two grown sons. He owns multiple Thai residences, including in Phuket where he keeps his 91-foot yacht, Major Affair, Chiang Mai, Ko Samui, and Hua Hin. 

We caught up with him via a video call from the penthouse suite at his company’s St. Regis Hotel in Bangkok, where he was in quarantine after a flight from India.


 

At the beginning, what were your dreams for Minor?
I was trying to avoid going to university. I had no major plans, but I wanted to stay in Thailand, and I wanted to pursue car racing. And that's exactly what I did.

So, your first love was go-karting?
I brought go-karting to Thailand in ’63 and raced go-karts until a couple of years ago. Then I raced cars, as I've always been attracted to competitive motorsports and motorcycles. I raced a Jaguar Macau as the youngest driver in the Macau Grand Prix. Now, I show the vintage cars at events around the world. My collection included a 1963 Shelby Cobra, which is in the movie Ford v. Ferrari. I sold it at Pebble Beach [California] this year for $4.5 million.

How did you end up introducing American fast foods to Thailand?
We started Mister Donut, then Pizza Hut. When that franchise expired, we started The Pizza Company, which is today the pizza market leader in Thailand. We took on Burger King, Dairy Queen, Sizzler, and numerous other brands. Over the years, we’ve grown to owning 2,300 restaurants; and through two other companies that we control, we have another 2,000 under the names Bread Talk and S&P. 

What made you give up your American citizenship?
I was running a Thai company in the 1990s, but an American couldn’t do business in Vietnam. Nor could I own land in Thailand because I was a foreigner. When I became a Thai, I could do both.

Do you plan to grow the company further?
We're always looking. We bought a company that manufactures retro scooters that look like a Vespa or Lambretta, but our main business is food and hotels.

You're known as Asia's pizza king. What made you decide to introduce pizza to Asians?
I love pizza and couldn't buy it in Thailand, so it seemed like a void that needed to be filled. We did the same thing with ice cream, burgers, Sizzler steaks, salads, and seafood. Tastes are basically the same. That's why Coke and Pepsi sell so well globally. 

And then you moved into dairy production for cheese to top the pizzas? 
We set up a cheese factory because we’d had to import all the cheese, and we wanted to help the local dairy industry and farmers. Virtually everything on our pizza is now homegrown.

You were also the first to bring fast food to China, but it was too early. Why didn’t they want it?
In 1989, we signed the contract to buy the rights to a pizza franchise in China for which I paid $50,000 [U.S.]. Just before the opening, the Tiananmen Square uprising took place so we waited a year and went into partnership with the Beijing municipal government to open the first Pizza Hut in China. We opened the second one and then a third one—but it was slow going. 

By that time, in Thailand, we had around 50 outlets and we were opening a store a month. Our private equity investors asked why we were spending all this time in China with three outlets earning a pittance. So I gave up and sold my business in China. It was not a brilliant move because five or six years later, Pizza Hut in China was bigger than my entire operation. If I hadn’t heard all that advice, maybe I would have been stubborn enough to have kept it going-–things could have been very different today, but that’s life. 

Later, we bought a Chinese company, Riverside Fish Restaurants, and now we’ve got one of the biggest fish restaurant chains in China, so while we haven’t brought in fast food, we bought a Chinese brand and grew it.

You suffered during the Asian financial crisis in the late ’90s and, in 2004, a tsunami wiped out one of your hotels. Then there were coups, floods, SARS, and now COVID. How has that all affected your bottom line?
In the ’90s, Forbes ranked us as being worth $100 million. At the end of the financial crisis, we were worth minus $25 million. It's been up and down depending on the crisis, but generally, we've still trended upwards. The most difficult situation we’ve covered is COVID. We lost about a billion dollars over the last two years, but we're still here and it looks like we might have a good year in 2022.

How concerned are you about Omicron?
I think we're going to learn to live with this virus, and I don't think Omicron is going to be as dangerous as Delta was. We've now got so much capability of fighting these viruses that I think we've seen the worst of it.

You are the joint owner of MJets, and you have a pilot’s license. How did you get involved with private flying?
I started flying when I was in my twenties. It was the quickest way to get to some of the hotels. If I drove my car, it could take as much as eight hours. By flying, I could do it in 45 minutes. 

So, you got your pilot's license so you could fly from hotel A to hotel B?
And look for land and get around the country and get to other countries. I got a couple of thousand hours [of flying time] and then I learned to fly helicopters. I have rotary-wing and fixed-wing licenses. These days, I prefer to spend my time in the back, but I still get a chance to fly once in a while. 

What aircraft have you flown?
I started with a Grumman, and then I learned to fly a Cessna 150. Then I bought a Grumman Linx, a two-seater. I went from there to a Mooney 201, then a Bonanza, then a Piper Malibu, then a JetProp. That was the last personal plane that I maintained. 

And what exactly does MJets do?
We're the biggest FBO operator in Thailand. We have maintenance facilities and FAA-approved maintenance, and we manage perhaps a dozen jets. We provide hangarage and maintenance for virtually every plane that's in the country and many of the planes that visit.

Do you remember the first time you flew privately?
I guess it was on a Challenger 600 back in the nineties.

For business?
Yes. And then I chartered a lot. I'm a member of NetJets. I keep NetJets hours for use in Europe and when I'm traveling in the U.S. 

Do you plan to grow your fleet?
Yes, if I can make some money after COVID.

Do you fly with your wife when you go to Phuket or any of your other homes?
Yes, if she wants to go. We just came back today from Udaipur, India. We flew the Citation X. There are probably more private jets in India than in most parts of the U.S. 

How much do you fly privately in a typical year?
Probably a couple of hundred hours.

Has your private flying changed because of COVID?
We were locked down for two years, so I could only fly within Thailand. When I could finally get into Europe, I used NetJets. It was just too hard to fly privately with the crews and quarantines. We still can't fly to some places that are locked down. It'll be another six months, I think, before we see private travel open up fully. In the meantime, we use [private aircraft] for point-to-point meetings and places where we can get in and out without being quarantined. 

Do you use your airplanes to help with your philanthropic efforts?
They certainly have gotten us to many of the project sites. We've used them to visit sites in Cambodia and other countries as well as in Thailand. 

If you could buy any airplane for personal use, what would it be?
I think probably a Global 7500 for its range and comfort. But in that category, you've got some great planes, whether it be a Gulfstream or Falcon. I like them all. We've had this GV now for maybe 15 years, and it's served us really well. We use it for our own trips, and MJets charters it.

What is your business philosophy?
Work hard, play hard.

And what drives you? 
I think the satisfaction of seeing people become successful in our company and in the companies that we work with. 

What's the worst business mistake you ever made?
The fact that we've survived probably means that none of the mistakes were that serious. Buying [Madrid-headquartered multinational] NH Hotel Group a year before COVID and losing a billion dollars wasn't my brightest idea.

What's the best business decision you ever made?
Staying in Thailand.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I'd like to be remembered for having done some good for Thailand. It's been my home for almost 60 years.
 

This interview has been edited and condensed.
 

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