As the Cheltenham Festival kicks off next week, gambling boss, Ralph Topping, explains that football is fun but racing remains tops at his firm
Ralph Topping, chief executive of William Hill, is able to do what we would all love to do: dress up sporting jaunts as work. A visit to the Cheltenham Festival next week could be counted as work, as could a trip to the European football championships in Poland and Ukraine in the summer. But, says Topping, “I don’t like jaunts. Somebody at work said, ‘Ralph doesn’t work 24/7, he works 26/9.’ I turned down invitations to see two semi-finals at the World Cup in South Africa because it would have meant practically a week away from work. As a Presbyterian Scot, I get guilty if I’m not working.”
We have just sat down for lunch at the Ivy and the man who runs the country’s largest bookmakers with 2300 shops has encouraged me to order haggis.
I have already provoked him to defend his homeland by suggesting that Scotland is a backwater. “Everywhere’s a backwater if you’re sitting in London. There’s a lot going on at the moment.”
But then Topping, 60, is the son of a West Lothian policeman who, when I ask how he would vote on Scottish independence, says: “I come from a family which is very much independence-minded. Would I vote for it? Do I like Alex Salmond? Put it this way, I do think Salmond is the best politician in the UK at the moment, the cleverest.”
Topping does, however, have a shrewd assessment of the English products that work for his business. So, while William Hill sponsors the Scottish Cup — “a good product”, says Topping — it is the marketing deal he did with the Football Association in January that, he admits, has opened up the world for his business. “We’re a big company with a strong presence in England. We’ve got a big global footprint now, and there’s a hell of an amount of interest in the Premier League. Being associated with England is a good thing for our brand.”
Football did keep Topping awake on November 19 last year when all the favourites came in.
This — the football equivalent of Frankie Dettori winning all seven races at Ascot in 1996 — cost William Hill £6million and the industry £30 million. Football now has an increasing share of the business which, last year, saw William Hill’s income rise 6% to £1.1 billion. The online business contributed £321.3million, a 28% rise in net revenues.
Topping insists that there are no issues in the relationship with Playtech, its joint venture partner, despite a legal spat last year. As for walk-outs by employees in Tel Aviv and Bulgaria, he dismisses them as problems with “rogue employees”. However, William Hill, which has an option to buy out Playtech by next year, may now decide to exercise it.
For Topping, racing is “still the main sport for us” and the one that really concerns him.
“The racing industry hasn’t done enough to promote the sport, never been able to define what it actually needs. It should take a good look at itself. There is a lot it can do to put its own house in order. You can tell me the result of the football match last night. But 19 out of 20 people involved in racing will not be able to tell you the winner of the big feature race the previous weekend. Racing is a great spectacle but it does not last as long in the memory as other sports.”
Topping would get snooker supremo Barry Hearn to run racing. “He knows what the public are looking for. Take a walk down a high street in London, stop a punter and say, ‘How much is 1000 guineas worth?’ He wouldn’t be able to tell you what a guinea is worth. But we still have races called 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas. The races involving three-year-olds come incredibly early in the season.
“Does racing need the cost base it’s got at the moment? Should all those racecourses be sitting empty? Racing could probably sustain about 40 to 45 racecourses. It has over 50. That is a fair number of unprofitable businesses being propped up by a state subsidy called a levy.”
The levy paid by bookmakers, currently £65 million, is a perpetual battleground, with the sport feeling it never gets enough. “Well,” retorts Topping, “the industry is fairly Oliver Twist in its attitude. It always wants more. It’s never satisfied. We should never lose sight of the fact that it’s a betting product for people who go into a betting shop.” And for all the horses that Sheikh Maktoum and other rich men own, for Topping, “The working man keeps the show on the road.”
Topping has a very precise idea of what the working man does when he walks into a betting shop. “A working guy goes in a betting shop for about 18 minutes. During that time he’ll have four or five bets, with most of them around £3.”
Topping’s own experience of betting shops dates back to when, as a 19-year-old law student at Strathclyde University, he took a “Saturday boy” job with Mecca Bookmakers. His father had given him a car, but told him he must fund its running costs. “The betting shop had mainly women working in it, and if you wanted to go to the toilet, you had to go in the garage next door.”
Within two years he was working for William Hill, and has never left. “The pay was absolutely fantastic compared with a teacher, which is probably what I would have ended up being. I’ve seen huge changes in the industry, all for the better.”
Failure by critics to appreciate that makes him really angry, be it Mary Portas calling betting shops a blight on the high street or MP Diane Abbott complaining about their proliferation in her Hackney constituency.
“Diane is a great one for the one-liner but, bless her, she isn’t a polymath. What she said was really stupid. We were able to show that the number of betting shops in Hackney had dropped in her time as an MP.”
What reassures him is that the critics are not in tune with society. “There’s an enormous amount of people who get pleasure out of betting. It has become really mainstream, just as drinking has become much more socially acceptable. When I was a boy, women could never go into the pub, they had to go to the snug bar to have a drink. People now don’t look down their nose if you have a bet.”
LIFE AND TIMES
1973 William Hill trainee
2002 Retail operations director
2008 Chief executive
Married with three children
BEST ADVICE I’VE RECEIVED
“This following piece of advice was given to me by Kevin — a director of William Hill who has now died. When I was a trainee manager at Ayr Racecourse, Kevin said to me: ‘It looks like you will go far in this organisation.
‘The higher up you go, do not forget where you came from.
‘You come in with an unblemished reputation, make sure you leave with one.’ I have never forgotten that advice.”
The PR guru on working with Thatcher and Murdoch and moving to the centre – geographically at least
Tim Bell has been moving to the centre all his life. For a man who was Lady Thatcher’s PR guru, this would be sensational news except that the movement has been geographic rather than political. “As my career progressed,” he says with a laugh, “I have worked my way from north London to the centre,” from a Norman Shaw house in Frognal Lane, Hampstead, to a Belgravia town house.
Thatcher lives round the corner, Yehudi Menuhin used to be the residents’ spokesman and a few doors away is a house that fooled an entire generation of television viewers into believing they were witnessing events from a police station in the East End of London. Now a private residence, then it was London’s most famous police station. “The Queen Mother,” explains Lord Bell, “used to give it the prize for being the prettiest police station every year for God knows how long. And Jack Warner stood outside it in Dixon of Dock Green, [a British TV series that ran from 1955 to 1976].”
The Evening Standard
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