With lottery sales hitting an all-time high of £7bn, Camelot chief executive Dianne Thompson has every reason to be smiling
But, despite that, she’s sticking with her plan to step down in 2015, she tells Toby Green
If you hit the jackpot on the National Lottery, and choose to make the trip to Camelot’s headquarters in Watford to pick up your cheque, there is a chance the person handing over your winnings will be Dianne Thompson. “I love sitting down and talking to winners,” says the woman who has headed up the lottery for more than 12 years. “I always want to know where they were when they found out.”
She has certainly had plenty of winners to meet since taking the top job back in 2000, yet these are record-breaking times for the National Lottery which earlier this month announced sales over the last financial year reached an all-time high of nearly £7bn.
That is despite the economy being in the doldrums, but Ms Thompson is quick to warn against the theory that tough times encourage players.
“We’re not counter-cyclical,” she says. “That’s what most people say to me – ‘when times are hard don’t people spend more money to try and buy their way out of the recession?’ That’s not true at all, and in fact our latest research shows that if the economic situation wasn’t as bad as it is and has been, we’d probably be selling at least another £50m, possibly £70m, of tickets a year.”
As well as economic pressures, for the last year-and-a-half the National Lottery has faced competition from the Daily Express tycoon Richard Desmond’s Health Lottery, which is a collection of regional lotteries promoted nationally.
With Camelot claiming Mr Desmond is using a loophole that needs to be closed, its attempt to get a judicial review into the Health Lottery’s license failed in the High Court last summer, although early this year the Government said it would hold a consultation on “society lotteries”.
Despite Camelot’s ongoing opposition to the Health Lottery, Ms Thompson says its effect on the National Lottery has been minimal. “I think there must have been some [impact], but they aren’t doing as well as they’d hoped,” she claims.
Instead, she says she is “worried about ... the precedent that it sets”, adding that if “four or five others come in then I think you’d see a major impact on the National Lottery.”
For its part, a spokeswoman for Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell says the “Health Lottery is completely different”, adding that it “hasn’t made a penny in profit but we are proud to have helped raise more than £34m for good causes and want to help raise hundreds of millions more.”
While the tussle has certainly caused friction – Mr Desmond called Ms Thompson a “second-hand car salesman” after the High Court’s decision – she claims there is “nothing personal” between the two: “We still advertise in [Mr Desmond’s] media, and we’ve been a big advertiser over the years with him.”
Another test for the Lottery will come in September when the price for its flagship Lotto draw is raised for the first time, doubling to £2. The move is an attempt to tackle the fact that Lotto is in decline – sales have more than halved from its peak of £4.7bn a year.
News of the price rise sparked reports of players threatening boycotts as well as criticism of long-term incentive plans for top bosses, which Ms Thompson describes as unfair.
With prizes being raised and a new Lotto raffle being introduced, Ms Thompson claims “our players said they’d rather the price went to £2 and get these benefits rather than it be at, say, £1.50 and only get a bit little more on the jackpot”.
Unsurprisingly, Ms Thompson is keen to highlight those who benefit from funding from the National Lottery, which earlier this month announced it had passed the £30bn mark in money raised for good causes.
A major beneficiary was last year’s Olympics, and Ms Thompson says she “was really proud of the part we played in it. I loved London, I loved the Games.”
Her favourite athlete was shooter Peter Wilson, saying “when he won the gold medal, before the medal presentation, his dad ran down to give him a big hug. And he just turned to camera, and said ‘we couldn’t have done this without the National Lottery’, totally spontaneously.”
As well as other big projects helped by the Lottery such as the Tate Modern and the Eden Project, she also picks out “some of the quirky things” such as the Angel of the North.
However, she wants more done to link the causes to the Lottery itself, believing it should be mandatory for plaques to be installed showing where the funding has gone: “If you don’t win, then knowing that part of your pound or two pounds or whatever you’ve paid actually has gone to do something good for Britain just makes you feel good.”
She mentions that the multi award-winning film The King’s Speech was lottery-funded: “Can you imagine the impact that it would have had if Colin Firth, when he was getting his Bafta, had actually said on live TV ‘and I would like to thank all the people who played the lottery, because you made that film and you gave me this Bafta.’ That would have been fabulous, wouldn’t it?”
Camelot is making a name for itself away from these shores. It has acted as a consultancy for lotteries around the world and is bidding for them as well, particularly in the US where cash-strapped states are looking for a way to monetise their assets. Another opportunity is Ireland, where the state lottery is going to privatise – “we’re having a look at that because it’s right on our doorstep,” says Ms Thompson.
She adds: “My dream has been for a long time … [to] try and expand internationally, get other revenue streams so God forbid we ever lose the license here then Camelot and its people still have a future”.
Having owners with deep pockets helps – in 2010 Camelot was bought by Canadian fund the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan who, Ms Thompson says, are “very keen to help us expand and to invest the money to buy other lotteries”.
Securing Camelot’s future also involves a move to improve its digital offering, and she believes the 15 per cent of National Lottery sales that do not come from shops will rise.
For her future, however, she is sticking to her plan to leave in 2015, despite having already pushed back her original retirement date of the end of the Olympics: “2015 I’ll have been CEO for 15 years, and I think it’s time for fresh thinking and a fresh pair of eyes.”
She points to another veteran bowing out, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson – “Didn’t he choose the right moment to go?” – and adds that Terry Leahy did about 14 years as boss of Tesco “and I’ll have done 15, so it’s about right”. Still, she feel she won’t stop working in some capacity.
Now the end of her reign is nearing, she’s sure she will miss it – “I love it,” she says. “It’s been the best job I’ve ever had.”
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