Boylesports boss bets on expansion
Conor Gray hopes to deliver on the long-term ambition to give the company a presence in the British market
When Conor Gray was growing up in Markethill, Co Armagh, he was very aware of the small village's most famous resident. The founder of a betting chain, John Boyle had some very desirable cars and as a self-confessed petrolhead, Gray paid attention to the entrepreneur.
"In the early 1980s, John had a white Volkswagen Passat and it had gold-colour alloys on it. He was the first one that ever had a Mercedes in Markethill, and he had a black one, and I can remember the number plates, which is bizarre," he says.
"John had stuff in the town that no one else would have had. Because he was doing stuff that no one else was doing. He was an entrepreneur and he was afforded these luxuries."
It being such a small village, Gray was in school with Boyle's daughter Kerry, who he began dating at 15 and later married.
Last year, when Boyle decided to take a step back from the company, he kept the top job in the family, naming Gray as chief executive.
It was not a given, insists Gray.
"I had the longest job interview in the history of CEOs because John, I suppose, over the last period of time was stepping back. So probably since mid-2016 I've been trying to take more and more responsibility, and John has been encouraging me to take more responsibility and to make decisions as well."
In situ since last July, Gray will now focus on putting his own stamp on the bookmakers which has grown to 249 shops and continues to compete well against giants in the sector, such as Paddy Power Betfair.
"We're going to continue to do what we've done hitherto, because that has been a successful formula. But look, I'm like all new people in new jobs," he says.
"I would love in two or three years, when we're looking at Boylesports and maybe there's a presence in the UK, or is it a presence in a different geography, that they're saying that was Conor Gray's project. I have an ambition to do something for the company that's going to change the dynamic within it, whilst always acknowledging what has brought us to where we are, because you can't turn your back on what it is."
Expansion into the British market has been a long-term ambition of the company, and one which Gray hopes to deliver on.
"We've been trying to get into the UK on a number of occasions. We've spoken enough about it, that's for sure."
The biggest attempt was in 2016 when the company tried to buy the 370 shops that fell outside the Ladbroke's-Coral merger. It was unsuccessful, however.
"It is still an ambition because our data, our history will tell you if you have a retail presence, it will help your digital business. And vice versa.
"So we have an ambition to be in the UK, as long as the commercial business model stacks up," he adds.
One of the biggest uncertainties facing the sector there at the moment is the introduction of new regulations for fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). The limit per bet is set to be reduced to £30 from £100 (€114), which is an improvement but a far stretch from the £2 limit campaigners had sought.
However, there may be a drop in income for UK bookies as a result, and Boylesports will wait to see what the impact will be on valuations. "The benefit for us as a company is we have never relied on FOBTs. In Ireland, it's all about customer service," he says.
Aside from the opportunity in the UK, Gray is looking at opportunities further afield.
"There's a couple that are in the hopper at the moment and probably it's just a fraction too early to talk about them. But we're interested in any geography that's got a business model that suits ours, and there's a lot of them in that regard that do," says Gray.
"One of them is fairly close, to the point where we're really in the decision time as to whether or not we will go for it. It would be a bit of a fledgling country in terms of its origin but it's too early for me to say."
Gray himself rarely gambles and, like his father-in-law, is teetotal. He is also interested in alternative medicines and mindfulness, like Boyle.
"I'm fairly broad-minded on most things," he says. "I know John was into mindfulness quite heavily and I would have an appreciation for it too because I understand the importance and the great computer that the mind is."
Gray's father was a digger driver and his mother worked in factories until she had children.
After school, Gray went to Queen's University to study economics and politics and then went into the economic consultancy division in Deloitte and Touche.
He was working there when he was sent to Essex to work on a pension review. When he returned to the Belfast office, he decided that this wasn't the life for him.
So he asked John Boyle if there were any jobs going in Boylesports, and was given a position working in one of the shops.
"I told my mum, and you can imagine how she felt. Five years in university, got my degree and my masters and I told her I was going to stand behind a bookmaker's counter," he says.
Initially, he worked in various Boylesports' betting shops around Dublin.
"It was incredible because it taught me a whole lot about the shops and the importance of the screening system, and the importance of making sure that everything was right. The coupons, that there was dockets, that the shop was tidy."
When the company was getting a new screen system in 2002, he volunteered to get involved and that brought him to head office.
After that, he put himself forward for any new projects there were going. "That's how I ended up going through many different departments in the company because I had an insatiable appetite for learning," he says.
Gray became involved in project management and this gave him an important insight into online.
"My first project was online poker, followed by online casino. So these were my first two projects. What I knew about these at the start, you could have written on the back of my hand. But it was incredibly exciting at that time."
His knowledge of online will prove to be useful in the years ahead. Online gambling is growing at high speed, and Boylesports is seeing the rapid shift first-hand.
"The dynamic is shifting incredibly," says Gray. "In terms of our digital business, and it's had a bit of a metamorphosis in the last two years. Historically, retail would have been our bread and butter and it would have accounted for 85pc of revenue, taking in the last three to five years.
"But we're seeing a big shift in our digital business. So the dynamic is shifting fairly considerably to where I would foresee we'll be approaching equilibrium fairly soon in terms of contribution," he says.
Although digital is growing, so is the retail network, according to Gray. Revenues are now close to €1.5bn.
Last year, on a like-for-like basis, retail turnover grew by 5pc. "Now if we were adding new acquisitions, we added 38 shops in 2017, it grew by 10pc," he says.
Does the shift to digital mean that betting will become a more solitary affair?
"Everything's mobile now. We're socially interacting via mobile, we're buying our groceries via mobile. Society's going more solitary, I'm afraid," he says.
"But the wonderful thing about Ireland and the Irish high street is there's still a special fabric in our streets," he says.
"If you go into the bookmaker's shop on an afternoon, you'll still have the guys that are standing about with a wee polystyrene cup of coffee and they're standing chatting and they're having their occasional bet."
The social aspect aside, problem gambling is an issue which is only likely to draw more attention in the coming years.
"Responsible gambling and social responsibility, it's a big priority in our company at the moment," says Gray.
"A lot of the functions and the facilities that we provide to our customers would encourage social responsibility because it's no benefit for us for someone to bet irresponsibly or bet over their means. We're an entertainment, social environment, and want people to enjoy it.
"In February, in the second week, we took a 'be responsible' theme across our entire shops and our digital estate, where we put posters up in all the windows of our shop. 'A great tip, know when to stop'."
There is likely to be more regulation in future, but Gray says the company will rise to the challenge.
Boylesports is set for tomorrow's Grand National, which it sponsors, after a good Cheltenham which Gray says delivered huge growth in digital. The World Cup will be the next highlight.
Now that Gray has the top job at Boylesports, has he treated himself to the type of car he used to marvel at as a child in Markethill?
"I haven't got it yet, but I have my eye on something.
"And I'm hopeful it'll be arriving fairly soon," he says.
Sunday Indo Business