BANGKOK: King Power, Thailand's duty-free juggernaut owned by the late billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, is facing intense pressure over its near-monopoly at the country's airports, with rivals calling Thursday for a break-up in an upcoming auction.
The future of the company - which also owns English Premier League football club Leicester City, hotels and real estate - was thrown into uncertainty by Vichai's death last year in a helicopter crash at the stadium of his beloved club.
The tragedy has not forestalled moves by rivals to attack King Power's monopoly over Thailand's duty-free concessions - which generate an estimated US$1.9 billion a year, according to the Thailand Development Research Institute.
"We want to have multiple players within the system ... To have a monopoly or a sole player can easily lead to corruption," said Worawoot Ounjai, president of the Thai Retailers Association, a lobbying group.
Worawoot is also a senior executive in shopping empire Central Group - which is hunting the airport concession alongside Thailand's Mall Group and South Korean duty-free giant Lotte.
"(King Power) will not be affected much - they have already profited so much from what they have," he added.
The duty-free concession at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi, the main airport in a country set to draw over 40 million tourists this year, will expire in September 2020, and is expected to go up for bidding later this year.
State-owned Airports of Thailand (AoT), which awarded King Power the sole concession in 2006, on Wednesday announced Suvarnabhumi's commercial opportunities will be separated into three: duty-free, commercial including retail and food, and duty-free pick-up counters.
The potentially lucrative contracts will be offered "with a focus on being open and including free competition", AoT said in a statement.
It did not provide further details on whether a single company can hold all three contracts.
King Power could not be immediately reached for comment.
Its founder Vichai was a supremely well-connected businessman with a sharp eye for opportunities in a kingdom where networks count.
But he remained largely out of the public eye.
Thailand's former king bestowed him the royal surname Srivaddhanaprabha meaning "auspicious and prosperous light", and after his death, the first three days of his elaborate funeral rites were sponsored by current King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
His son Aiyawatt now heads the unlisted family firm, which was started in 1989 with a single Bangkok shop.
At the time of his death in October, Vichai's empire was worth around US$5.2 billion, according to Forbes.
Last year, a Thai court rejected an attempt to sue King Power for hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid revenue to AoT - a rare legal challenge issued by the company's enemies.