View from City Road: Stein's spirit haunts gamble

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Fifteen years after its ignominious exit from casinos Ladbroke looks set, Gaming Board permitting, to take its place at the croupier's table once again. It is tempting to take the deal as a sign that, although he may have left the board, Cyril Stein's spirit lives on. What better way for Peter George, chief executive, to thank his mentor than to take the company back to its gambling roots?

Mr George has been with the company for more than 30 years - although his background is in betting shops rather than casinos - so it would hardly be surprising if he, like his predecessor, felt a nostalgic attachment to casinos. But the group's explanation of the strategy behind the deal is convincing enough to suggest that it was not simply aimed at making an old chairman happy.

Relaxation of gambling rules in the US, together with the new-found wealth of many Asian countries, has made casinos one of the fastest-growing areas of the leisure market.

Hotel chains such as Ladbroke's Hilton are well-placed to take advantage of that trend. Obtaining licences overseas is likely to be easier once it has permission to operate casinos here - and it may finally dispel the memory of the 'not fit and proper' criticism which so stung Mr Stein in 1979.

Ladbroke would be able to argue that the granting of a licence - it would surely not have done the deal unconditionally unless it was pretty sure it would be forthcoming - is evidence of how much the company has changed. Certainly Ladbroke could not have hoped for a licence while Mr Stein was still at the helm.

Mr George may, none the less, still find it hard to shake off the effect of his 30 years at the company. He is a Ladbroke man born and bred; while the company is now rather more eager to please analysts than Mr Stein was - the meeting that closed after just three questions is part of broking folklore - an outside director would probably have been able to move that much faster in boosting disclosure and cleaning up accounting practices.