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Against the odds: Denise Coates's good fortune

How did Denise Coates turn a £15m loan into a billion pound fortune? Margareta Pagano reports on the woman from Stoke behind the world’s biggest online betting firm
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While Stoke City were beating Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, there was one person missing from the jubilant home crowd – one of the club’s billionaire owners, Denise Coates. Rather than watch the hugely important match with her father, Peter Coates, the Stoke chairman, she was working flat out not far away from the stadium in the offices of Bet365 in the middle of an industrial estate.

It’s where Ms Coates, the chief executive of Bet365, is to be found most Saturday afternoons because it is the peak time of the week for the online sports gaming company that she set up 14 years ago working out of a Portakabin. By March 2001, as the internet was taking off, Ms Coates launched what she has herself described as the “ultimate gamble”– a new sports betting platform, Bet365. As the platform got going, the family borrowed £15 million from RBS to expand, pledging the loans against their betting shop estate, the chain of Provincial Racing shops.

Her gamble paid off. Bet365 is now the world’s biggest online gaming and betting business – taking £20 billion in bets last year from seven million customers in 200 countries – and Ms Coates is one of the UK’s wealthiest businesswomen. According to Forbes, it emerged on Tuesday, her personal fortune is worth $1.6 billion.

And, according to Ms Coates, it’s all been achieved by sheer grit. In one of her rare interviews, she admits to being a “bossy” workaholic, working through the night in the early days to get Bet365 off the ground. Whatever you think of betting, there’s also something rather compelling about how Ms Coates has coupled the age-old industry of gaming with cutting-edge technology to create a goldmine. And what a success it has been – last year Bet365 made a £150 million profit – and that was after absorbing £31 million of losses from the family’s majority interest in Stoke.

All bets now are on Stoke turning the corner after a disastrous run in the 1990s when her father – during an earlier spell as chairman – was vilified by the fans. All told, the family, which bought the club back in 2006, has now sunk £100 million into it – an investment on which Ms Coates is keen to see a payback.

More than half of the Bet365 goldmine is owned by Ms Coates, who with her husband, Richard Smith – also a Stoke director – recently adopted four young children from the same family. Last year she received pay and bonuses of £5.4 million, as well as her share of £15 million in dividends. After the payouts, the company was left with £430 million in cash reserves. It’s also been great for Stoke-on-Trent – nearly of all of its 2,500 employees are local – and new offices are being built on the site of Stoke’s local paper, The Sentinel, in the city centre. 

Yet while Bet365’s television ads are familiar most of us have never heard of this driven entrepreneur who doesn’t even reveal her age. She likes it that way, too. Even in Stoke, she passes unnoticed, although her personalised Aston Martin must be a giveaway. What is known is that Ms Coates started working while at school in the cashiers’ department of her father’s betting shops, marking up bets, and later in accounts. After university, where she gained a first in econometrics and met her husband, she returned to the “pretty rubbish betting shops”, rising to become managing director in 1995, before going on to take over another chain.

Intensely private, she refuses all face-to-face interviews, preferring to correspond by email. Tellingly, she broke her own rule in one interview to correct the impression that it had been her father – who also owns the Lindleys Catering business – who founded and ran Bet365. Otherwise, she lives quietly with her family at a farmhouse next door to her father and mother at Sandbach, just outside Stoke. Not surprisingly, security guards were recently hired to protect the family home.

Locals say the last time they saw her publicly was with her father at Wembley in 2011 when Man City beat Stoke in the FA Cup final. After Saturday’s win, which ensured that Stoke avoid relegation, they hope she will be present at another final; even if she is only there to celebrate that more success means reduced losses.