Thai conglomerate Central Retail launched the country's biggest ever IPO Thursday, giving it a market cap of around $8.1 billion in a punt on a sputtering economy now hampered by the new coronavirus.

Most Thais visit a shop each day owned by Central, a family-run empire which has hundreds of malls, electronics, grocery and 24-hour convenience stores across the country.

Shares in Central Retail Corporation (CRC) were offered at 42 baht on Thursday morning, but made only a modest quarter baht gain in early trading, with the company eying fundraising of just over 71 billion baht ($2.26 billion).

"CRC is very proud" to become "the country's largest IPO ever," chief executive Yol Phokasub said.

The money raised will pay for "business expansion and stores' renovation", he added.

Super rich and well connected, the firm, founded by the Sino-Thai Chirathivat family after the Second World War, has been on an ambitious overseas spending spree -- acquiring or partnering with luxury shopping brands in Italy, Germany and Switzerland.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand said the initial public offering puts CRC among Thailand's 12 largest listed companies.

Thai conglomerate Central Retail hopes to raise around 71 billion baht ($2.26 billion) in the country's biggest ever IPO
Thai conglomerate Central Retail hopes to raise around 71 billion baht ($2.26 billion) in the country's biggest ever IPO Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA

Central already dominates Thailand's streets but is desperate to make serious inroads into the booming online sales market.

The group received a royal endorsement in 2005, a recognition by Thailand's unassailable palace reserved only for the biggest conglomerates.

Thailand's big firms are run by Sino-Thai families, with deep connections, deeper pockets and a nose for navigating the choppy political waters of a country defined by coups and short-lived civilian governments.

They control businesses in a country which was once the leading economy of Southeast Asia, but is one of Asia's least equal as it atrophies under a military-run government.

Drought, high household debt, the strong baht and now the impact of the deadly new coronavirus have also clouded the economic outlook.

The Bank of Thailand has said it is likely next month to revise its GDP growth outlook to under two percent, with tourism hammered by a slump in Chinese visitors.