Roger Raatgever: 'I'm an adrenaline junkie. I seize the day and suck the marrow out of it'

Or how one of the big players powering the growth of online gaming is an accountant who doesn't bet
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The Independent Online

"It happened out of the blue," is Roger Raatgever's explanation. "I was in the rat race working in merchant banking and thought it was an exciting opportunity. I had very little knowledge about [the sector] but for me it had all the elements of excitement. I'm an adrenaline junkie. I want to seize every day and suck the marrow out of it."

And so, since 2000, seizing the day is what Raatgever has been doing, if from a rather sedate offshore haven. The low-profile but highly ambitious Microgaming came into being a little over 10 years ago, and the software that both it and its rivals develop and license has allowed online poker and other casino games to explode. The burgeoning growth of the sector - and the multi-million-pound stock market listings of operators like PartyGaming - could simply not have happened without that software.

"It has just snowballed," says Raatgever, "and I still don't believe we have scratched the surface - and we're talking about a £12bn industry here."

But while it boasts clients such as Ladbrokes, Spin Palace and 32Red, which floated earlier this year, not much is known about Microgaming. Who, for instance, owns it? Raatgever is in no mood to spill the beans. "We're a private company and the owners have asked us to respect their privacy." He says that the shareholders - though he later refuses to confirm that there is more than one - are not hiding their identities (or identity) and that the company will say who they are "when the time is right. The time is not right now. We don't need to."

As it is, a little digging and the one name that regularly crops up is Martin Moshal, a South African businessman. One online article dubs him "CyberSol" after Sol Kerzner, a fellow South African who made his name and fortune in traditional "bricks and mortar" casinos, but little else is known about him. The company declines to confirm or deny Moshal's involvement.

While such reticence is forgivable - the company is, after all, a private business - it does add to the industry's controversial reputation. Online gaming firms have been criticised, rightly or wrongly, for a host of issues. These include a lack of transparency, encouraging problem gambling, adding to consumer debt, being based in tax havens and earning a lot of their revenue from punters in the US, where internet betting is still technically illegal.

Raatgever points out that Microgaming is a software company, not an online gaming business, and further that it has nothing to hide and a reputation he is proud of. "We wouldn't have the clients we have if it was an issue. The question is answered by what we have achieved and where we have got."

PartyGaming, arguably the best-known online gaming group, is not a client but Raatgever makes no bones about saying he would "love" to have it on board. Microgaming currently powers around 120 casinos and 40 poker rooms.

As for the Isle of Man HQ, the firm now operates tax-free on the island after corporate rates were slashed from 10 per cent to zero, while income tax for individuals is being capped. It employs developers around the world but the corporate base has 42 staff, up from just two in 2001.

Raatgever says the island is "open, friendly, has a clear framework and is very welcoming" but he has not ruled out moving to the mainland, where it is currently illegal to operate a gaming site, at least until the new Gambling Act comes into force. Even then, taxes are likely to be much higher than in the offshore locations where most of the sector is based.

"As soon as there's a framework [for online businesses], we will be very happy to look at the UK. The minute we can and the minute we know, we will look. I'm not going to lie, the tax regime is significant, but it's the quality of life that keeps us there." By way of example, he says that if it takes him 10 minutes to drive to work, that's a bad morning. Most days he runs in through the island's abundant countryside.

This is not Raatgever's first stint in the UK. He was born just outside Johannesburg, but when he was six he moved to England with his mother and English stepfather. Aged 13, he returned to South Africa to complete his education and worked there until joining Microgaming. A keen sportsman - at least until he was injured on the rugby field - he is a long-term supporter of South African rugby but has adopted Liverpool as his football team.

He's enthusiastic about life in the UK and says the growth in bricks-and-mortar casinos, made possible under the Gambling Act, is "going to be great". "The exposure will raise the profile of the entire industry. We will also be looking to run their software for them, obviously."

A new, higher profile is something that interests Raatgever. Although reluctant to discuss the firm's backers, he is more than happy to talk about his plans for the business. Microgaming has hired a public relations firm and is rebranding, pulling all its differently titled software programs under one, Microgaming-branded umbrella.

His growth plan is to continue adding new clients. Acquisitions of rivals have not been ruled out - though a market listing has been, for the time being at least.

"We will look at everything and we do look at everything," he says. "We don't need to raise capital right now. I definitely see consolidation playing a part but we have the funding to do that. [As a listed company] you spend a lot of time worrying about the next press release and not having the flexibility that we do. We don't have to disclose our products - we can just get them to market before anybody knows about it."

Not all his competitors would agree: rival software firm Playtech floated on the London Stock Exchange in April and now boasts a market value of £725m. But then Raatgever knows which gambles he is prepared to take - be they relocating from South Africa to the Isle of Man, staying silent over who owns the company he runs or finding new ways to grow the business - and which ones he is not. Does, for example, he partake in the odd flutter or late-night online game of cards himself? "No, I don't," he says without a moment's hesitation. "I'm an accountant."

BIOGRAPHY

BORN 6 July 1970.

EDUCATION

Studied marketing at University of Natal, South Africa.

CAREER

1992: trainee accountant at auditors David Strachan & Tayler.

1995: supervisor, David Strachan & Tayler.

1997: general manager, Aspen Health Care.

1998: divisional finance manager at South African restaurant group King Consolidated.

1999: corporate finance consultant at Absa, the South African bank.

2000 to now: chief executive, Microgaming.

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