William Hill pulls out of Amaya merger talks, but what next for what was once Britain’s best bookie?

With rivals focussed on pulling their own deals off, Hill could steal a march if it can find the people it needs to fix its problems

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The Independent Online

William Hill has opted to fold its hand and consign its attempt to merge with Canadian gambling company Amaya, better known as the owner of Full Tilt and PokerStars, to the discard pile. 

The bookie6s directors have mercifully recognised that they didn’t have much of a hand after their biggest shareholder came out and publicly trashed the deal they'd cooked up, sparking a rally in the share price. 

That’s to be welcomed. Shareholders ought to reign in the directors of the companies in which they invest when they propose bad deals. The pity, in this case, was that it took a hedge fund to do the job of saving William Hill from itself rather than a more conventional institutional investor. They are too often content to sit silently on the sidelines. 

Now that Parvus Asset Management has done the job of bringing William Hill to its senses, what next for what could have justly been described as the king of British bookies as recently as a couple of years ago. Can it ever regain its throne?

The Amaya deal seems to have had its genesis in the fact that both companies had been left out of the merger mania sweeping the industry. 

The fact that it is back on the sideless again, however, presents William Hill with an opportunity. Mergers are risky and disruptive. Companies go in making gaudy promises about cost savings and then have to get rid of people to make good on them. Talented people who could make a real and meaningful contribution end up getting clipped. With executives focussed on integration, standards slip. Customer service goes out of the window. Companies are often slower to react to issues and threats than they might otherwise be. 

Rivals unencumbered by those issues have an opportunity compete for and win business while also picking up some good people who will surely be motivated to show their old employers what a mistake they made in getting rid of them. 

Hill has many issues to fix while it goes about doing that. It needs to find a permanent chief executive for a start, preferably a grown-up who can inspire their employees, and some tech whizzes capable of fixing the problems that have bedevilled the most important part of the business. 

It also has to ensure that the new boss has good people around them so they can put into effect a new strategy designed to cure the company’s ills. 

Finally, the board that gave the green light to the Amaya merger needs to recognise the responsibility it has for the place in which Hill finds itself. It made a bad choice in hiring James Henderson to replace Ralph Topping as chief executive and then took too long to correct that mistake. It followed that up with the Amaya debacle. 

After these errors, it needs to recognise that an infusion of fresh blood and fresh thinking is necessary. 

If the members of the William Hill board take a hard look at themselves, recognise their issues, and act to correct them, the company could still emerge as a winner.

William Hill is, after all, a great brand. It is just a couple of years out from being the industry’s best brand. In bowing to its shareholders, it has at last got a decision right. If it can follow up with a few more good choices then who knows where it could be a couple of years out from here 

It might be anathema to the board, given he’s been so publicly critical of the company, but it could do worse that drafting in Mr Topping as a consultant to advise on the next steps. 

It would be a powerful statement of intent from the Hill’s directors and a much better bet than some the bookie has made over the past few months. 

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