Tuesday 20 November 2018

They don't tell you this in college

Nick Webb

WHEN bread delivery man John Boyle was sacked from his job 20 years ago, few would have bet on the Armagh man making his fortune from the bad luck and ill-advisedchoices of others.

But Boylesports is now one of the biggest, certainly the fastest-growing bookie in the country. And the sometime marathon runner isn't finished yet; he's not even out of breath.

Sitting in the plush Westin Hotel in the centre of Dublin, sipping quite possibly the most expensive mineral water this side of St Tropez, Boyle explains that he's goingto have a huge party withchampagne, bands and amarquee when the company smashes through the ?1bn turnover mark.

The one problem is that he's got the small task of finding ?750m in new revenues a year in order to meet that modest target. "We believe we'll achieve it effortlessly," proclaims the bookie confidently, before quoting the Nike advertisement: "You're faster than you think."

It's all very well planning big parties and celebrations, but it's going to take more than chutzpah to quadruple his turnover. The internet is going to be a key part of the plan, he says. Dear God! Didn't the dotcom whiz kids of the late Nineties say exactly the same thing?

"We expect it to bring in massive amounts of money," he says. "I could see half a billion [euro] coming on the internet." Boylesports' current internet revenues account for a mere 5 per cent of the business, so there's certainly plenty of room to grow. But ratcheting up web turnover to ?500m will take some doing.

Boyle points out that the website will target international business. It's also going to need a bottomless pit of marketing funds and wheezes to bring to fruition.

Super-confident or just plain bonkers, time alone will tell. But Boyle has proved to be a bit of a whiz when it comes to building up the company. In fact, Boylesports has been growing faster than a teenager on steroids.

In a mere two years Boyle has added 30 new shops to the chain, bringing it to a grand total of 77, a whisker behind Ladbrokes, the second biggest operator here (Paddy Power has 140 shops in Ireland). Company revenues have nearly trebled in three years, according to Boyle, rising from ?89m in 2001 to ?253m last year. Maybe the ?1bn target isn't quite as bonkers as it may sound.

Apart from the trusty internet revenue stream, Boylesports is also planning to open a bunch of new shops. "At the moment we have 30 new shops in for planning," he says. At least half of these will open in Dublin. The expansion won't stop there though.

"The perfect result for us is to have 100 shops by this time next year. After that, how far would we go? I'd say that 150 would cover the south of Ireland," he suggests. "We'll also look at bingo halls, amusements, casinos - anything in the leisure business. Also hotels and whatever moves with it. We've got the foundations and now we're going to build the house."

While nobody's yet seen a poor bookie, funding these grand development plans is going to need deep pockets. Despite its large turnover Boylesports has made precious little pre-tax profits, according to latest accounts, as huge chunks of money are ploughed right back into the business to pay for renovations or opening new stores. No dividends are paid out and Boyle has got some willing bankers.

His plans include a few big deals thrown in for good measure. The 48-year-old father of seven smiles whenever the topic of an acquisition is mentioned. "We're open to looking at any new things that could be put on the table. Any opportunities of any company with say 40 shops, 50 shops or 100 shops. We'd be ready for that - and our bankers would be ready for that," he says.

The bookie says that he could buy any of the companies operating in Ireland, from Paddy Power down to a smaller outfit. "Absolutely. We'd be up for any company and we'd be able to fund it for taking over," he claims.

Three years ago, Boylesports had a tilt at buying Stanley's southern Irish operation. "If something like that was to come back on the market, we'd be interested," he says, slugging back more hugely expensive fizzy water. The banks were "100 per cent" behind the plan to buy Stanley with a price tag of about stg£12m (?15m).

"It was a giveaway at the time. But my gut said that it wasn't the right thing at the right time. Whenever I get a gut feeling I go with it. Whenever I haven't gone with it, I've been wrong," he says. One thing's for sure. They don't teach that kind of stuff in Harvard Business School.

Whatever about the chances of a major acquisition in Ireland, Boylesports is definitely going to have to go hell for leather to break into the UK market. "We've the doors closed to nothing. When we achieve our max in the south of Ireland, then we're going to have to look at the UK. At that stage you'd be looking at getting 300 to 400 shops on board, so you'd be looking for something," he says. A big fat takeover must be on the cards.

"Well, it would be more exciting than starting out again, with one shop, then two, then building up to five and 15 and on and on," he says as he turns off his mobile phone. "There's a couple of companies out there that I wouldn't mind getting my teeth in to."

A trip to the stock markets to raise money to fund the UK expansion is probably an evens shot. "At that stage, yes. That's when we'd do it - if we needed to," he confirms.

At the moment, the company is owned by Boyle and his wife. There are no other shareholders, which could make a flotation very lucrative. "The company must be worth up around ?100m," he says, making me feel less bad about him having to pony up for the Westin Hotel's bar bill.

Boylesports has been mentioned in dispatches as a possible trade sale candidate. Big UK bookies such as Victor Chandler have begun to move some of their luggage over to Ireland, with the intention of making a concerted play for the market. With its 77 shops, scattered evenly around the country, Boylesports would certainly seem to be an attractive beachhead position.

But Boyle insists that he's not interested in selling out. "It's never been part of my mindset," he adds. "If somebody were to come an give me a big fat cheque, that's not going to excite me. What am I going to do with it?"

He could have used it 20 years ago, when he found himself out of a job with mouths to feed. In fact, his beginnings in the business were not auspicious at all. "In 1981 I was a breadman and I lost my job in Newry," recalls Boyle. "It was a stage in my life where there was too much gargle and I wasn't going into work. I was a messer at that stage; I didn't appreciate what people were offering me," he adds before downing more water.

"Actually, it [getting fired] was the best thing that ever happened to me. It helped me grow up. I'd a wife and a couple of children. It was a wake-up call. 'No wages John, what are you going to do?' It got me into the business."

Boyle initially joined his brother's bookie firm before setting up on his own, establishing a shop in Markethill in Armagh. It cost stg£18,000. "My father guaranteed £12,000 of it and gave me £6,000 and, thank God, years later I was able to give it back to him. But he had enough confidence in me to give me the break," he says.

Seven years later he expanded, having learnt the trade in his one shop. "I'd done seven years in the first shop. It's like going to university. I knew after seven years that I needed to get out. I was dying in there and I needed to grow. When the opportunity came up in Drogheda, I grabbed it."

After the shop in Drogheda, expansion took a steady course with the real driver in the business being the standards set by the shops, according to Boyle. While location and competitive odds pricing are seen as the most important draws for a bookie, Boyle was ahead of the game when it came to introducing top-end bookies offices.

Your horse might still have fallen at the first, but at least you now got a free cup of coffee and had somewhere comfy to sit. Boyle's shops are the kind of places where you'd be embarrassed to spit on the floor, and he's led the charge in ensuring the days of sawdust and drunks in the corners are relegated to the past.

Boyle estimates that up to 10 per cent of the company's business now comes from women. It's a staggering change from 10 years ago, when the only women seen in a bookies were the ones coming in to haul home their waster husbands.

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