Minor International founder William Heinecke continues the global expansion of his hospitality and lifestyle businesses

The company today owns, operates, oversees and invests in a portfolio of over 500 hotels, resorts and serviced suites spanning 56 countries.

Despite the number of billionaires in the world growing every day, Heinecke remains one of the few who embrace life unabashedly, with total optimism and exuberance (All photos: Minor International)

The average holidaying family would probably have stumbled across the Anantara brand name at some point. With a slew of hotels, resorts and spas that span the globe — from the newly opened Anantara New York Palace in Budapest, Hungary, where Europe’s poets, artists and cultural intelligentsia gathered at its historic Belle-Epoque-style café for over a century, to a stunning desert resort in the sands of Qasr Al Sarab on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and, on our very shores, the stunning Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Spa in the southern Malaysian state of Johor — the proudly Thai-grown hospitality brand is clearly making its presence felt all over the world.

Its holding company, however, bears the simple, cut-and-dried name of Minor International, a world away from the glamorous-sounding Anantara, a Sanskrit phrase that loosely translates as “water without end”. But what Minor lacks in exotic etymology, it more than makes up for as a major success story.


From minor to major

Going as far back as 1967, the story of Minor is literally that — the spirited tale of a teenaged William Ellwood Heinecke, best known as Bill, who decided to take a flying leap into the world of entrepreneurship. “Yes, I started my business at 17, so that’s how the name came about,” says the now 74-year-old with a grin, in reference to his legal status when he kick-started an advertising and office cleaning business.

What began as a kid’s brave foray has since grown into a veritable hospitality and lifestyle behemoth (Heinecke later consolidated both enterprises under the umbrella name of Minor Holdings in 1970). Not content with being a business owner at such a young age, he also added “husband” to the list, marrying his childhood sweetheart Kathy at 18.

We meet over morning coffee at his clifftop villa in Phuket (Heinecke has a few residences scattered across Thailand but the Layan Beach home remains particularly special as it was one of the last projects the great Indonesian designer Jaya Ibrahim worked on prior to his passing). Nestled in an area nicknamed Billionaire Bay due to a reputed cluster of tycoons who live or maintain holiday homes in the vicinity, it’s easy to see why Heinecke has such a soft spot for this paradisiacal patch.

Looking out to the Andaman Sea and up the hill from the Anantara Layan Phuket, Heinecke good-naturedly points out his boat on the horizon. “It’s a Sunseeker,” he says, referring to the motor yacht marque. “I love this resort … Do you see the island over there? The tide is coming in now and in about three hours, you won’t be able to walk across to it any more as the water will be two metres deep by then.”

Born in the US state of Virginia to US Marine and World War II veteran Roy and advertising executive Connie, Heinecke credits his mother for his business acumen and sense of derring-do. “Mum used to sell ad space for Newsweek and made very healthy commissions on her deals. Success was also about the people you knew and I learnt [the importance of] contacts and connections from her. ” That theory was soon put to practice. Having met the then editor of Bangkok World through Connie, the plucky teenager, an avid go-karter, boldly proposed a regular karting column for the English language newspaper. The editor agreed, but only on condition that Heinecke himself secures the ad dollars to pay for it.


Layan Residences by Anantara in Phuket, Thailand

Early hurly-burly

What started as a successful series of go-karting stories grew to include cars proper as Heinecke expanded his literal motor skills. It was only after the newspaper’s full-time advertising manager quit that young Bill took on a bigger role selling advertising space, clocking in at the office daily the minute school was over. Having tasted the joy of earning a good steady income, he proceeded to drop a bombshell on his parents by deciding not to attend university. “It really was a question of pursuing what I loved. I was lucky because, very early on in my life, I knew what I loved and where I wanted to be,” he asserts. “People think I dropped out of school just like that but, in fact, I had been accepted to Georgetown University, which was and still is very prestigious.”

It was perhaps the sweet life of being a young expatriate kid with his own car in exciting Bangkok that proved irresistible. “Having lived in Asia for so much of my life — in Japan, Hong Kong and even Malaysia for a time — I didn’t want to go for a number of selfish reasons,” says Heinecke. “Bangkok was the longest place of anywhere I’d stayed and, besides, I felt grown-up already. And it was while packing and getting ready to go [to college] that it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be able to have a car that first year on campus, not to mention having to do my own laundry and getting my own meals. Besides, I was already freelancing so much with the newspaper by then. And having moved around so much as a child, I just wanted to stay in a place with people I felt comfortable with.”

The news did not go down well with his parents who said: “Only when you come to your senses and go to college will we support you. Until then, you’re on your own.” Left to fend for himself, Heinecke bravely decided to start a company. Unable to obtain a loan from his parents, he turned to his trusty Indian tailor. “He’d been doing my suits for years. So, I borrowed THB25,000, which amounted to about US$1,200 in those days, and paid 5% interest on the loan, repaying him in full in three months. Kathy, who was also due to attend Stanford, gave that up to marry me,” he adds, his face visibly softening. “Neither of us went to university as planned but instead, got married to start life together. Mum and dad naturally weren’t pleased and waited for me to regain my senses — which never happened. Later on though, I think they were very proud.”


Heinecke as an enthusiastic 17-year-old businessman in Bangkok

Made up mind 

The Heineckes have been blessed with two sons, John and David, several grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Few would have predicted, let alone imagined, such a picture-perfect and incredibly successful life and marriage for them. “I only had a high school education when Kathy and I married. Everyone was sure I was going to fail … that my marriage and the company would fail. But you know, I think that’s what kept me going. The will to prove everybody wrong.”

There are numerous quotes that extol the power of a made up mind, including a famous one by Napoleon Hill who quipped, “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve”. Heinecke nods in agreement. “I’ve seen it happen with many others. When they are determined not to fail and, more importantly, have no Plan B, you just gotta succeed. I guess, in life, people need that kind of incentive,” he laughs.  

“Having said that, I did meet someone who said to me: ‘Bill, you’re so lucky’. I was like, ‘What do you mean? You’re the richest guy I know. You’ve got the nicest cars.’ He then shared how everything was always given to him, how he never had to work in his life. And it dawned on me how it is sometimes an advantage when you don’t have anything, and everything you earned thereafter was with your own effort. There’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction which, I can tell you, is what keeps me going till today … what makes it all a pleasure.”

Heinecke takes this chance to share what he looks for when it comes to hiring new talent. “It is always passion first, followed by the ability to work hard. There is no easy way to get what you want or be where you want to be unless you’re prepared to work. So [when hiring], you really want people with an appetite for it. And always hire someone smarter. Because I didn’t go to university, I always recruited people who were smarter than me, who knew more about the subject than I did. In a way, that’s what really helped us.”


A full life

It would not be a stretch to call Heinecke the most successful foreign businessman in Thailand. Minor International today owns, operates, oversees and invests in a portfolio of over 500 hotels, resorts and serviced suites spanning — at press time — 56 countries and a bevy of brands, including Avani, NH Collection, Elewana and, of course, the flagship Anantara. Minor has also had its fingers in several pies, including F&B and lifestyle, stretching as far back as 1980 when Heinecke introduced Thailand to the joys of American fast food by opening the kingdom’s first Pizza Hut in the seaside resort town of Pattaya. Today, it counts over 2,500 restaurants in 24 countries in its fold, including Burger King in Thailand, Myanmar, the Maldives and Seychelles; theatrical teppanyaki brand Benihana; and casual dining chain Thai Express. For the many Anglophile Malaysians among us, it would be remiss to omit how, in 2022, it was Heinecke who emerged triumphant in the much-publicised corporate tussle with Corbin & King over legendary Mayfair brunch spot, The Wolseley.

But it is also no secret that he renounced his US citizenship in 1991 to become a nationalised Thai citizen. “People are always a bit shocked to see an American with a Thai passport,” he laughs. On the decision to do so, he is rather matter-of-fact. “Thailand is very much my home and part of the reason behind the decision was to try and distance myself from the people who live here, make their money and then return to their own countries. This was important to me. Also, I like owning land in my home country. And in Thailand, you can’t do so unless you are Thai. So, all those factors made sense for me to give up my US citizenship … and it was not for tax reasons, trust me,” he laughs. “All this happened way back before I had any money! I will never participate in politics or run for prime minister but I can tell you, I feel very proud of Thailand, its people and its achievements and I love being able to contribute. Yes, I am proudly American-born but I am also equally proud to tell you I am Thai. Besides, in many ways and instances, I feel more comfortable in Asia than I do in America.”

The wonder years

Although exceedingly wealthy, Heinecke’s life is far removed from that of a reclusive tycoon who sits around counting his money. A keen diver, he picked up the sport in Thailand but has since travelled the world in search of unique underwater experiences, including diving with hammerheads in Papua New Guinea and going eyeball-to-eyeball with whale sharks in the remote islands off Myanmar.

Heinecke’s love of cars is also no secret and even in laidback Phuket, his garage is never short of a few gleaming beauties. A quick stroll around the house further testifies to his great love for anything with a combustion engine. Besides physical automobiles, there are trophies and little miniatures on display, as well as a specially printed picture album that documents some of his most prized automobiles, such as a 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, a 1959 Ferrari 250GT SWB “Competition” Berlinetta Speciale, a 1972 Ferrari 365 GT4 2+2 Prototipo and a 1956 Austin-Healey 100M BN2 Le Mans.

“Whatever you love, pursue it with as much passion and energy as you put into your business,” he admonishes. “I love cars, go-karts … and whatever I loved, I loved with a passion. Michael Kadoorie [fellow billionaire hotelier and founder of the Hong Kong-based Peninsula Group] was also a very keen go-kart driver and, of course, in Malaysia, you had the famous PH Wong,” he says, referring to the father of Anne Wong Holloway, another pioneering racer who won the 1970 Macau Grand Prix and was nicknamed the Queen of Speed.

Heinecke himself broke the overland record from Singapore to Bangkok in his teens and it is not uncommon to hear of the motor-loving mogul dropping everything at a moment’s notice to fly to Europe just to view a car. “I have a car that’s being readied for Pebble Beach, as a matter of fact,” he adds. “It will be shipped there for the big car event which I attend every year.” When asked what some of his favourite driving routes of all time are, his face duly lights up. “Tuscany! I love all parts of Italy but Tuscany is one of the best due to all the historic racing that went on there.”

Not content with asphalt, Heinecke soon took his eyes off the road to look upwards — much higher upwards. Obtaining his pilot’s licence earlier on, one of his epic trips included flying a single-engine Piper Malibu — “the best aircraft to pilot” in his opinion — from Florida in the US to Thailand in a 64-hour journey that took six days. His brother Skip once commented how Bill’s idea of fun is “to jump on a plane at 3pm on Friday, fly to Chiang Mai to inspect a hotel and condo construction, attend meetings, have dinner, get up early the next morning, rush to the airport” and repeat the entire process again and again, with Pattaya and Hua Hin thrown into the equation as well. “He exaggerates,” Heinecke chuckles, “but it’s true I like to combine business with pleasure. It doesn’t feel like work when it’s something I like. And I am very, very lucky because I only do what I love, which are hotels, food and restaurants. So, it’s easy.”


Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Spa's two-bedroom pool villa at sunset

What was no laughing matter though was the summer of 1997. “When the Asian financial crisis happened, the world just changed overnight as all attempts to defend the baht failed. The whole region was in crisis and the corporate landscape started to resemble an abattoir,” he recalls, grimacing. A firm believer in positive thinking and never succumbing to panic, Heinecke quickly began executing a series of survival strategies, including freezing salaries, unpopularly changing their hotel room rates from baht to US dollars and selling their stakes in Boots Thailand and Lancôme Thailand to raise hard cash.

Yet, in between all the blood-letting, Heinecke remembered that one of the best ways to boost morale was to pick up a new skill. “I assembled all my key executives, instructing them to each go and learn a new skill that wasn’t in their comfort zone. For example, if they had always wanted to scuba dive or play golf, go and learn it and demonstrate that a new skill can be easily picked up. The key takeaway from this is to always look on the bright side: staff expect you to lead them, especially when the going gets tough, and to maintain confidence in your team. Everyone should emerge from a crisis stronger and better.” And what did Heinecke himself choose to do? “I learnt how to fly a helicopter.”


Forget the five-year plan

Once famous for dissing the Five-Year Plan, a pillar of traditional corporations, Heinecke clarifies: “I actually said it when we were just starting out. Then, we were solely focused on making enough money to pay salaries. It was only when the business grew bigger that we could sit back and say, ‘Okay. Now we’d better have a plan.’ But the world changes so quickly. Even now, we dare not plan beyond three years. It’s a little like climbing a mountain, you know. You take one step at a time. And when you get to the top, you suddenly realise how far you’ve come.”

Despite the number of billionaires in the world growing every day, Heinecke remains one of the few who embrace life unabashedly, with total optimism and exuberance. “I live every day like it’s my last. It doesn’t matter if I don’t wake up tomorrow as I have done everything I wanted to until today. But trust me …” he adds, eyes twinkling, “I may not have a five-year plan but I am enjoying life and taking each day as it comes. Someone once asked: Which has been my best decade? My answer is always the same: It is yet to come. There are still hotels I want to build at locations I have yet to visit. Besides, I’ve heard of too many people who passed on before they were able to enjoy all that they achieved. I’m determined not to be one of them.”

And with that, the sprightliest 74-year-old billionaire in the world climbs into his chilli red Ferrari 575 and zooms down the Phuket hills for yet another meeting on his day off.


This article first appeared on July 3, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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