Richard Flint: Taking a gamble

Richard Flint.
Richard Flint.
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Chief executive of Sky Bet, Richard Flint is not much of a gambler but he’s certainly got a head for business. Julie Marshall met him.

The nearest Sky Bet’s boss Richard Flint got to gambling when he was growing up in Essex was his family’s occasional sweepstake bet on the Grand National each year.

The son of academics, he studied engineering, economics and management at Oxford, won a scholarship to Harvard and was destined for a high-flying career in politics. He never imagined that a few years down the line he would head up an online gambling operation which employs 800 technologically savvy staff in Leeds and, following the sale of the majority of its shares to CVC Capital Partners, is now worth £800m.

“You meet some people in the industry and they’ve always wanted to work in betting,” says the 43-year-old. “For me it wasn’t really that, I was interested in business and technology although I’ve loved being in the betting industry and I’ve always been interested in sport,” he adds.

“When I came back from the States I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to work for a management consultancy company in London at the time of the internet boom in 1999; everyone was going off and doing start-ups and it was then I caught the technology bug.”

Richard and his then girlfriend, now wife, travelled around the world for six months and, on their return, discovered a friend was involved in flutter.com, an online betting start-up company which eventually became Betfair.

Richard found he was interested in the technology-side of the gambling business and in 2001 he discovered that Sky had acquired their own betting arm.

“I thought it would be exciting to get involved in new technology and also the Sky brand - the biggest brand in sport and the best known brand in Europe.

Richard joined Sky and worked on interactive TV where he remained for three years; he was involved in their television remote control betting operation in collaboration with Ladbrokes and William Hill.

In 2000 Sky bought the Sports Internet Group which included, among other companies, the small telephone and online sports betting company Surrey Sports - a Yorkshire-based business owned by Peter Wilkinson; it was rebranded Sky Bet in 2005 and, building on the success of their interactive television operation became a huge success.

The business was then based in Harrogate and had around 150 employees. “We had grown on the back of interactive TV to around £30m with £6m in profit but we found in 2005/2006 that business was dropping off and suffering as it was quite slow technology,” he says.

The writing was on the wall for television-based gambling. High-speed broadband internet connection was taking off and gamblers wanted to be able to use their home computers, laptops and smart phones instead of the television remote control.

Sky Bet struggled on for a few more years and reached a crossroads in 2007 when the decision was taken to focus on the internet. “We started working more closely with colleagues at Sky Sports to integrate betting into their programming and moved to Leeds and into an internet dot.com start up culture.”

Since then they’ve grown their workforce by a 500 per cent and profits and turnover by a similar margin.

“All that growth has come from being an internet business, making the most of technology, being at the forefront of technology and using the Sky brand to make us stand out from the rest of the online betting and gaming marketplace.

“In November we announced we were becoming a separate business, owned 80 per cent by CVC who own Formula One and 20 per cent by Sky and I think that’s probably firmed up our growth plans, made us more ambitious and led to some of the recent recruitment.”

Earlier this year Sky Bet created 90 new jobs in Leeds, engaging in a hire-a-thon event in which existing employees downed tool for the day to tap up industry contacts they felt would be suitable for a job at the firm; by the end of the event 100 potential recruits had submitted their details for consideration.

Richard said: “ We set the bar very high for the people that we want. Having the right digital talent is absolutely key to our success. We are flexible on qualifications, most tend to be graduates but not all, but the key is that they are superb technologists in whatever field they are in and also someone who can work in quite informal fast moving small team.”

Staff are trusted to manage their own time and there are play stations, pool and table tennis tables for when they need some time out.

“The people we have working on the coalface understand how technology works they understand what customers want and they are much more likely to come up with the next initiative.

“So an environment where staff are told what to do, are told how to spend their next hour, doesn’t make full use of their talents and is more likely to have them working on the wrong thing than the right thing.”

The gambling industry tends to get a lot of bad press but, says Richard, that is largely unfair and much of their business is based on the low stake, high win activity that is part of the fun on a Saturday afternoon.

Sky place great store in their social responsibility to gamblers and have appointed a head of social responsibility and compliance.

A number of balances and checks have been put in place to regulate a gambler’s habit.

“When you register you have an option to set a deposit limit and you can’t deposit more in any given period. Also you can self exclude yourself for a period of time,” says Richard

“We look at customer activity and if we see that someone is showing signs of problem gambling then we send them information about the tools available.”

Despite the availability of online gambling Richard maintains that the number of problem gamblers in the UK- around 300,000 - has not risen in the past 10 years and most of these are not online gamblers.

“The proportion that have problems are tiny, “says Richard. “I’m not saying some people don’t have problems, but there are millions of people who don’t.”