Wednesday 29 January 2020

Bookie Boyle heads down home straight

Founder targets €10bn business as he prepares to hand over reins to family after hitting 60

Bookmaker John Boyle says that though he and his family have ‘a good lifestyle and a good wage’ they don’t take money out of the business but reinvest it as it grows. Picture by David Conachy
Bookmaker John Boyle says that though he and his family have ‘a good lifestyle and a good wage’ they don’t take money out of the business but reinvest it as it grows. Picture by David Conachy

Gavin McLoughlin

'I've been CEO now since 2012, and that's not my gig. My gig was retail and going out and finding stores. But I've gone in and I've enjoyed it for five years. I'm ready this year to step back from the frontline of being CEO."

Hearing John Boyle utter those words comes as something of a surprise. The bookmaking business that bears his name is coming off the back of its best-ever first quarter, and the company is in the middle of an acquisition spree.

In the last four-to-six months, it has increased its Irish presence by more than 10pc by opening around 25 stores, and now has 231 nationwide.

The company is unlimited and does not file detailed financial statements but Boyle says it is debt-free and is turning over more than £1bn a year.

Boyle has said previously that he thought the company could manage about 250 stores in Ireland. He's coming close to that target now - helped by a trend of smaller independent bookmakers exiting the business.

"I don't know whether they're tired of the business or whether there's that much change with technology - but we're getting a lot more calls," Boyle says.

"Independents - and I'm an independent myself - have always depended on other companies to provide a third-party service for us, to keep us competitive. And now for independents there's less of that available because there's not enough of them." Long hours are a factor too, Boyle adds.

"So that [target of] 250 stores, I might have to push it out a bit."

However far he pushes it the next big phase of the company's growth will probably come outside Ireland.

Boyle has been trying for some time to establish a bricks and mortar presence in Britain. He's a believer in retail bookmaking, having started the business with a shop in Markethill in Armagh in 1982.

The company tried to buy 359 British shops that came to market on foot of the Ladbrokes-Coral merger, but lost out on the deal to Betfred and Stan James.

Boyle said he bid more than his rivals and his disappointment at missing out is palpable. Now he's focusing on acquiring smaller regional players in Britain.

"How close are we? In the last month we have been doing due diligence with a company, and we're very close. I would say in 2017 we will be operating in the retail market in the UK. Now, it'll be at a smaller level because the bigger level of taking over 300-400 stores at this time isn't available to us. I would hope within the next 12 months that we would set our sights at having at least 100 shops in the UK."

The company is also casting the net further afield. It has employed a firm of consultants to bring it a regular update on potential acquisitions worldwide.

"We have a consultancy set up that monthly brings us information as to what's available. So we're saying we're in the market to grow.

"If there's an online acquisition that came to us and it was the right fit, then we would say yes to it ... there's so many jurisdictions now where betting is available."

But Boyle probably won't be on the frontline of the business when many of these future opportunities come to fruition.

He thinks the next chief executive will likely be someone already in the business. He's got some family members working in the business who are in their 20s - probably a bit young to take on the mantle.

"You need maturity. I like to see people getting to 40 and then you've got people who've got plenty of experience," Boyle says.

Future decisions on whether to float the business will likely fall to the family, Boyle says. It's not an option that he finds particularly attractive.

"Say that if I was to float and I was sitting on a board with 10 people all around me, and I said I want to go to Ballina and spend €300,000 on a store. Then somebody else that's brighter than me says 'No, you can take that and invest it somewhere else'. I'd be saying 'I don't want to come and work for you'."

"My idea of the business always was that it was a family business, no different than anyone else, I went to work to provide for my family so that we could educate them and give them opportunity and we've achieved that.

"I'm just past 60. Another goal of mine was that 60 sounded good for retirement and stepping back. Now I'm at that stage and I'd be more thinking of family. Those decisions [about the future of the business] will be left to them."

As well as spending time with his family Boyle is something of a gym bunny in his spare time. Weightlifting is his discipline of choice, though he's run a few marathons in his time as well.

He's interested in achieving his full potential, he says. The stories of Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody and former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson - people who achieved outstanding success in their field as individuals whose stories he has tried to learn from. He's also spent time with mind guru Tony Quinn.

"I'm always wanting to achieve my best potential, so Tony Quinn was one of many people that I've gone around the world and spent time with to see is there 'an edge'?

"It's no different than say GAA football managers, all those who want to win the All-Ireland this year - they're looking for 'the edge'," Boyle says.

But when asked what his hobbies are, his first response is that Boylesports is his hobby. Having met his target of £1bn he now has significantly bigger numbers in mind.

"We don't disclose our figures because why should we tell our competitors how we're doing? It doesn't make any sense to us ... [but] I've said in interviews before that I've had this goal of having a £1bn financially successful company and we passed that a number of years ago.

"I would say I'm closer to doubling that than where I was ... we've achieved a £1bn company, our next goal is £10bn. That's the plan we're on."

A hot topic of the moment in the sector is problem gambling and how that can be tackled effectively. Boyle says the company sponsors the Dunlewey Centre, which supports people struggling with addiction.

"All our people are all trained how to deal with problem gamblers," Boyle says.

"We supply posters to our shops, we supply training to our management, we supply self-exclusion. In protecting and looking after our people, I would say Ireland is ahead of what's going to come out in the future, and no different from any part of the business, we're always looking as to how best we serve it.

"Are bookmakers looking for problem gamblers? Absolutely not. Is a publican looking for someone coming in who is over-intoxicated? It's a similar thing.

"Our business is to provide an opportunity for people who have disposable income and want to go in and have an investment on football or the horses. We take it seriously and I think the whole industry in Ireland does."

The company seems to have improved more in challenging times than in easier times, Boyle says.

During the recession it was able to buy stores that had previously been owned by Ivan Yates's Celtic Bookmakers and William Hill at a fraction of their previous value.

He expresses his philosophy simply: cut what needed to be cut and grow what needed to be grown. And the downturn in the industry meant that instead of opening new stores from scratch, they could buy existing stores and their already- existing turnover.

"Going back to 2009 I would say we've increased by more than 100 stores. I don't know whether we were lucky I've always kept it sort of debt-free. That made me comfortable, when I go home I can sleep and I don't need medication.

"A lot of people take money out of their business. We have a mindset that this is not our money, it is our customers', so we put it back in. Now we get a good lifestyle and we earn a good wage, but the rest of it goes back in. And I think people appreciate that. We're still growing, and maybe that's why."

At the company's shop in Phibsboro in Dublin, Boyle greets the staff behind the counter and shows off the latest pieces of technology in the store.

A fancy coffee machine is there for customers to use - the old Ireland of the betting shop and the new Ireland of hipster coffee culture colliding. The shop is in excellent nick and that fits in with Boyle's view of the betting shop as a social arena.

In Ireland, there were around 1,400 betting shops in 2009 but nearly 600 have shut their doors since then. Boyle thinks there will probably be fewer in future but believes it's important that people have a choice of avenue for betting.

"There's something about retail customers and online customers that are completely different. My whole background is all retail. Online is now for the new kids on the block. But the social aspect to a retail store is so different.

"I was in Cavan the other day and I was shaking hands with guys and we were having the craic. Guys come in and it's a meeting point.

"People that are interested in sports are there and they're provided for. Will that aspect go? I'd say there will be fewer, but what will be there will be super stores that people want.

"The important thing for us is that we have product. It's important that people have that place to go to, that they have the choice."

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