'I was a boozy van driver, but I lost the job and had to wise up'

Boylesports founder John Boyle overcame drink and depression to build up Ireland's biggest chain of privately-owned bookies. He went to Cheltenham with Nick Webb

John Boyle by Don Berkeley.

Nick Webb

'BRING it on!" Boylesports founder John Boyle settles back in his seat overlooking the last fence on Cheltenham's infamous hill. The tape is about to go up for the Supreme Novices hurdle, the opener of horseracing's biggest jumps festival.

Cheltenham is the make or break week for Irish bookies and Boylesports has millions of euro in exposure to some hotly fancied Irish raiders. If the gambles are landed, the bookie will be hit. Hard.

But Boyle is cool as a cucumber as the starter's flag rises. His phone has just pinged with the news that the morning's betting is up 40 per cent on the previous year.

"For us 2013 was the best year since the recession. It's the first year that a lot of our team are back on bonuses... including myself," he smiles.

There haven't been bonuses for seven years. Boylesports has attracted more than €1bn in bets "consistently over the last few years". As an unlimited private company, it doesn't break down profit levels. But margins are tight. Mind you, there aren't too many poor bookmakers. Especially after the Lehman-sized losses I clocked up during the week.

But 32 years ago, it would have been hard to see Boyle heading up a company with sales of over a €1bn per year.

"I was just one of the guys, with lots of drinking and lots of issues. I didn't know how to have a relationship, even though I was married at 19," he says. Boyle was a boozy bread van driver, heading nowhere fast. "And then I lost the job when I was 25. That was my wake-up call. I couldn't support my family. I'd a wife, two children, another on the way, a serious drink problem and no one was looking for me. I sort of grew up overnight."

Boyle had worked in his father's betting shop at weekends, so he knew the business. A shop in Markethill, Co Armagh, came up for sale in 1982. "My dad lent me £6,000 and guaranteed me with the bank for £10,000," he says.

"I wanted my brother to buy it and put me in to run it. But he wouldn't. He didn't trust me because I'd let him down so much in my drinking days. I was only off the drink six or eight months at that stage. But my dad stepped in. He must have seen something in me. That I'd changed. And he gave me the helping hand."

Since then he's built up the largest privately owned bookmaking group in the country. But that was never the plan. In fact, there wasn't a plan.

"It was boredom and borderline depression for seven years," he admits. "The only way I got out of it was when I went for the second shop. When we did the second shop. it was easier to do a third.

"That's just the way it moved. There wasn't a plan. It just happened – and I really enjoyed it."

The early years were tough and Boyle made plenty of mistakes. But those experiences helped him in the long term. An education in the business school of hard knocks. It beats the pants off an MBA.

"The first seven years were a good thing. I learnt a lot. I learned about money. My telephone was cut off because I didn't even know about bills or how to set up a direct debit. The seven years on my own were good learning."

Boyle, 57, has bid to buy up smaller rivals in the worst recession in history. It's a ballsy gamble on a recovering economy and the future of an industry clouded by new tech, taxes and consumer habits.

"We're in profit. We're growing. Our numbers have come on in quantum leaps since the recession as a result of other people's misfortune and people going out of business."

Boylesports now has 194 shops in Ireland. Paddy Power has 210, with Ladbrokes also over the 200 mark.

"I'd say that 50 to 60 stores over the last five or six years have become available and we got them unexpectedly. We'd never have got them in better times," he says. "We've bought these stores and they've taken us through tough times and made us stronger for the future.

"We bought 18 stores from the receiver of Celtic [the Ivan Yates-owned bookmaker] for just over €2m. We also bought 15 shops off William Hill for between €1.5m to €2m," he says. "If you were to go back to before 2007, they'd have been €1m each... There are a lot of bargains out there now."

Boyle has suggested that he could possibly have as many as 250 stores in Ireland.

"We wouldn't be opening new stores. The independents are getting it tough because they haven't got the numbers and the technology is growing faster and faster. We might have 25 guys pumping information into our stores. The independents just can't do that. It's probably the biggest thing for them. It's not the recession – it's keeping up with the technology."

The domestic betting shop industry was absolutely pulverised by the recession as discretionary spending simply wilted.

"The average customer bet is about €14. Back then it was €25. That's a big fall. It's never really crept back up. Last year was close to what it was the year before. But what has crept up is the number of bets," he says. Punters are having more bets at smaller stakes. "In other years you would have had plenty of €50s and €100s, now it's more €20s and €10s. The spend is less."

Betting is seismically affected by the direction of the economy and the amount of disposable income available. It's a barometer for how things are going.

"We not seeing any major uplift except for mobile, which is what you'd expect. It's steady but there's no sudden surge."

Boylesports hit a fence and wobbled badly during the downturn. "In 2009, we'd a bad year. We could see it coming. We had our best year in 2006, then 2007 was OK and the first half of 2008. Then it just fell off a cliff."

There were two CEOs in a short period of time before Boyle took control. He had taken something of a backseat but returned as boss "when the ship needed a stable, steady person because everything was all over the place". The company had embarked on some way-out moves such as the expensive sponsorship of Premiership football club Sunderland before its website was able to cope with the increased traffic. Boyle went back to basics. Investing in the stores, becoming more competitive on pricing and pulling in the horns. The medicine worked.

The firm was inches away from a potential car-crash acquisition that could have completely banjaxed the company for good.

He had tried to buy the Tote in the UK in 2005. "We had three banks willing to lend us €400m," he snorts. "All I can say is thank God it collapsed. At the time we were interested and serious. I was over there for six months."

The British government pulled the sale before offloading it to Betfred for £265m in 2011. Boyle admits that the sheer size of the potential deal and the weight of the borrowings could have splattered his company. "It probably would have, with the returns of what they got over the next four or five years. We most definitely wouldn't have been able to make it."

But despite the near miss, the UK remains in Boyle's sights. Boylesports will eventually run out of opportunities in Ireland. A big acquisition is a possibility. But he's also looking at becoming an operator for one of the private equity owned groups.

"There are companies looking for expertise. Something like that would just knock on the door and we're open," he says. "There's always something happening but nothing is close. We have the expertise and they might want to look at someone like us and have a relationship."

Like the world and its dog, he's looking at Asia. Boylesports already has operations in the Philippines. The jumbo-sized and highly unregulated gambling markets of Asia are enough to put cartoon dollar signs in the eyes of any bookie. But Boyle is reining in the enthusiasm.

"There's no plans over the next two years to expand in Asia, although it looks very, very attractive. Our focus is Ireland. We have our stores, our brand awareness and our customers and I don't want to lose that. Having said that, as the family move in they might have other ideas on how to expand," he says.

Handing over the joystick to family members is on the agenda, he admits. "Any transfer will just be to the family. I never had any plans to sell or float the company. My idea was just to go to work, earn a few quid, go home and take care of the family."

Boyle owns almost all of the company but he's examining some proposals about widening the shareholding to include his seven children – six daughters, one son. Two of them live at home in Rostrevor, Co Down, with a couple working in the business. His son and eldest daughter work in the bingo sector in the North. "My son says he gets paid more than me... he's probably right," he says.

"I'm looking at things. You need to look at exits, especially over the last year." Boyle was hit by Bell's palsy, which froze the nerves on one side of his face. It's 90 per cent better but it reinforced the perfectly sensible belief there there's more to life than just work.

There have been possible exits before. Spectacularly lucrative ones. "I've been offered money. Silly money. I was offered €200m to sell the Irish retail by a company in 2007," he says. "I remember being there with the chairman and the finance guys and just looking at each other and saying, 'Are we doing this?'" he recalls. "But I was thinking, what would I do after?

"I could go to the South of France and do nothing... but I like getting up and going to work. This is my toy. What was I going to do? I'd have a big cheque but nothing to do."

Valuations have come back considerably since then. "To me it's worth more than it was then. The shops I've been buying are probably for a fifth of what it was back then. I suppose if someone was valuing the Irish retail it'd be worth €40m to €60m."

But Boyle insists that the money and trappings of success were never the primary motivator.

"I always ran it very tight. I just took my wages, I never took millions. I didn't buy a house for 15 years. Some people would have gone out and bought a new house after their second shop and got a big mortgage, or would've gone off and bought a big new car. I did it the opposite way. I built up the business and then got myself a house and a car."

There's not a flicker from Boyle as the firm's biggest potential loser of the day, Hurricane Fly, goes down in flames in the Champion Hurdle. Boyle has plonked £50 on Our Conor to win. The name had resonated with him. Not form, jockey or even a tip... just the name. He'd just had a conversation about a guy called Conor. His method on betting is about as dumb as mine.

But backing his own convictions when others have dismissed them is what has helped him build such a big chain. Boylesports has one key USP, or unique selling point. The shops have to be pretty damn smart, with free coffee and now free wi-fi. It's all about getting customers to stay longer. It's the same reason department stores have restaurants. The longer customers are inside, the more they will spend.

"I used to always believe that I knew what the customers wanted and that they didn't know themselves. We'd talk to them and they'd ask for better prices or more free bets... and we gave them luxury. They hadn't asked for it but now they just go in and go, 'Wow'. And then they bet a billion quid.

"I see myself as a retailer. I'm interested in the customer. Betting just happens to be the thing I'm doing. It could be a grocery store," he says.

You can't beat a bit of Dolly Parton

If I weren't doing what I do, I would be ... "I'd probably enjoy going into colleges and universities and talking to young people. I'd like that. Giving them information that they wouldn't necessarily learn in schools."

The last meal I really enjoyed was...

"Organic venison at Brook Lodge."

If I didn't live in Dublin, the place I would live in is ...

"The South of France is nice. Monte Carlo. Or the Philippines."

My greatest indulgence?

"Ruby. My Rolls Royce".

My favourite website is ...

"Probably Amazon.com."

One artist whose work I would collect if I could is...

 "I've never really had an interest."

The best gift I've given recently was...

"I suppose the greatest gift that you can give to someone is your full attention."

My favourite piece of clothing is ...

"A new cap. I bought it in the US. It's grey. My father used to wear them and I've been looking for one for ages. I probably over-wear it."

The last music I downloaded was ...

"I listen to Country & Western in the Jeep, Dolly Parton or Garth Brooks. I'm going to Garth Brooks this year."

The book on my bedside table is...

"'The Game of Life and How to Play It' by Florence Scovel Shinn."