Ian Penrose: 'Mr Pools' prepares to take on the biggest gamble of his career

A Day in the Life: The chief executive of Sportech, spends a meeting-filled day gearing up for the relaunch of the Fooball Pools
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Turning around the Football Pools is the biggest challenge Ian Penrose has taken on, but it has at least allowed him to return to his home town from where he commutes to Liverpool on those days when he is not in London. He baulks a little at the suggestion that he is now "Mr Pools" but that is what the affable Lancastrian will be when Sportech, the company he runs, has completed the acquisition of Vernons from Ladbrokes, the bookmaker.

The Sportech team was recently able to breathe a sigh of relief when the Competition Commission greenlighted the deal, which will see Vernons combined with the Sportech-owned Littlewoods to create what will be single dominant Pools player.

In doing so, it accepted the arguments of Sportech, and Mr Penrose, that the Pools operates in an intensely competitive market, battling for punters' cash with other low-stake, big-win games such as the National Lottery and Tote's Scoop6 bet on Saturday's Channel 4 televised races.

The Lottery's launch, of course, ripped the heart out of the Pools, robbing it of much of its business. Penrose hopes to be in a position to spark a dramatic revival after completing the deal, but there is a lot of work to be done, hence the early start.


It takes Penrose about an hour in the car to reach Sportech's headquarters on Merseyside, where he spends the first part of the day catching up with emails, dealing with any issues that have cropped up overnight and making a few early calls. The main business of the day, however, starts at nine when Mr Penrose holds a meeting with the head of Sportech's Pools business.

There is a lot going on, with the company planning a comprehensive relaunch and new pools-based games to attract younger punters when the deal is complete. He also wants to hear an update on how the company's collection operation is performing.

While eGaming is all the rage – and Penrose is keen to make it simpler for people to play the Pools with the help of new technology – Sportech still employs a small army (nearly 12,000 strong) of collectors who pick up traditional pools coupons and money door-to-door from a quarter of a million homes every week.

At 10.30am the two usher in consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, who are helping Sportech carry out a root-and-branch review of this part of the business. "We are looking at all aspects of the business, from profitability, to regions, to the number of collectors, and the size of their rounds, to the detailed costs of operating," says Mr Penrose. "The logistics of the business, getting coupons to and from Liverpool, are complex, and we want to think about how well we are doing it and how we can make it more efficient."


It is time to discuss the progress of the Vernons deal. Conference calls with a battery of advisers are a regular event as Sportech seeks to complete the acquisition now that the most important regulatory issue has been dealt with. The price has not yet been agreed yet either, although the rumours permeating around the marketplace put the figure at around £50m.

It is the focus of much of Mr Penrose's attention. Despite the fact that he puts himself through a gruelling schedule, Penrose has always managed to come across as relatively easy going, which makes him a likeable individual. But, at the moment, the tension can be heard in his voice, as he and his company reach for what clearly will be a Transformative acquisition.

On the call are the company's investment bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers and accountants, and they will together seek to deal with the key issues that have risen over the past few days as the deal continues to progress. Such a call can last for a considerable amount of time, as on this occasion when it clocks in at more than two hours. The phone is still busy directly after because Penrose then takes a second call with the bankers who are lending Sportech the money to finance the deal.


Marketing is going to be crucial to the future success of the Pools, and that is why Mr Penrose plans to put into effect a relaunch next year, quite soon after the deal has completed. He has hired a branding and marketing agency to del with this, and he wants to hear a progress report. "We are a long way down the line with it," says Mr Penrose. "The meeting is for my and team I to hear a presentation from the agency on the most recent ideas and proposals that they have been working on."

The agency will also be called on to come up with ideas to sell the host of new football-based games Sportech plans to launch. Mr Penrose then shifts his attention back to the deal, holding a call with Ladbrokes to discuss developments. It is a simple matter, and he is then able to spend a brief half an hour with his PA to deal with other matters that have come up with the business before his next meeting.


As if a transforming deal and a rebranding were not enough, Mr Penrose has also set in train a major overhaul of the company's technology with the help of Scientific Games.

"They are the world's biggest supplier of Pool or Tote and lottery based systems and their project managers are all over our building at the moment," says Penrose. "When their senior people come from the US we usually sit down with them and their project managers to go over things."

These include installing the latest EPOS - Electronic Point of Sale - systems and improving the technology available to the company's network of collection agents. The meeting concludes at around six when Mr Penrose takes an hour or so to "read through some of the huge volume of correspondence relating to the deal". This is clearly not one his favourite tasks, but has to be done.

He does not usually head for home until 7.30pm, at the earliest, and will often finish much later than that as a result of business dinners. That is what will occupy his evening, when he will hold one of those with Scientific Games, heading towards Liverpool's trendy Albert Dock. "They've spent a lot of money on it and there are a number of nice restaurants down there," he says. Being back in the North-west certainly agrees with him after the seven years he spent in London and Lingfield for his old company, Arena Leisure, which, like Sportech, has Trevor Hemmings as its leading shareholder.

"I'm still in London for at least a day and a half a week but being back home closes a circle," he muses. "It also means I can at least try to see Preston North End at the weekend, although it's not always easy at the moment."

The CV

Name: Ian Penrose

Age: 42

Marital Status: Married with two children

Educated: University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (Umist); Bsc Management Sciences

1986-91: Work at accountancy firm Ernst & Young, qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1990

1991-92: Pomfrets – Corporate Adviser

1991-98: TJH Group – Investment Director

1998-2005 : Arena Leisure – Chief executive, overseeing the expansion of the company from one field to seven, including Doncaster. Arena now hosts more than one quarter of the UK's horseracing fixtures.

2005 : Sportech – Chief executive