Victor Chandler: Pick up a few tips from the king of the bookies
The Business Interview: The punter's favourite sits down to a game of poker and talks about betting with James Moore
Thursday 04 March 2010
If bookmaking is becoming a less colourful industry, Victor Chandler is doing his best to redress the balance. How many modern bosses would host an interview over a game of poker? Many of Chandler's rivals will say that they don't even bet, or show a marked reluctance to talk about it. It's almost a point of pride with them.
Chandler is different. Oh he's aware that, in the gambling business, it's much better to take bets than it is to place them yourself. But the fact that he gets such unalloyed pleasure from gambling makes him feel like "one of us" to punters.
This gives him a formidable marketing advantage and has allowed him to break one of advertising's unwritten rules – that executives should never appear in ads pumping their own product. Chandler has done just that: the commercials feature great sporting events from the last 50 years with Chandler inserted into the crowd with the help of a little special effects wizardry. He turns to the camera with a knowing smile before the obligatory husky voice-over explains that Victor Chandler has been the punter's favourite bookmaker for over 50 years.
"It was my marketing director's idea, just to prove we'd been around for a lot of time," says Chandler, who feigns modest embarrassment before explaining that another set of ads is due to be filmed in the next few weeks. "I think the next series will be quite good as well, though I won't know what we're doing till I get there."
Playing poker with someone like Chandler makes me a shade nervous. It's only a "fun" game. He's pledging a donation to my nominated charity (the DEC Haiti appeal) if I win. But that doesn't stop it feeling like I'm walking into the lion's den. Still, I settle down after the early hands go my way, and we start to talk business.
Just how is it going, post-recession: "We are seeing a few green shoots from the UK, with people coming back a bit. There's a lot of small stakes business online with people staying at home more and the European business and the Asian businesses have never been better."
Ireland, though, remains mired in gloom. "Turnover's down nearly 50 per cent from its high nearly two and a half years ago, but the number of bets is up. There's just no money in Ireland. It's destroyed. The number of bets is better but the business is smashed. We've got no big players. Everyone seems to have been damaged."
Big players are where the Essex-born Chandler made his name. He revels in his title of "The Gentleman's Bookmaker" and his reputation for sharp suits and sharper thinking. The Gibraltar-based company is renowned for its "high rollers" business, an operation that will not blanch at taking five- and even six-figure bets from a very exclusive clientèle. But, as a result, rumours perennially do the rounds that Chandler's is seeking a buyer after taking a big hit from one or another of them. Chandler is unmoved by this: "They [the high rollers] are still a big part of our business. They make a big difference. It's the cream on the icing on the cake. It's the jam. It's a specialised business. We've got a sealed room we use for it with coded entry. There's only 10 people allowed in there. Every high roller has an account manager. I take a big interest in it," he says.
But isn't part of the problem, I say, collecting another hand and prompting Chandler to ask the dealer for a double shuffle, that high rollers are better at punting, they know more, have access to sources of information denied to us mere mortals? Not so, says Chandler. "The swings are much bigger. The danger is there. But they wouldn't be there if they consistently won. There are some people for whom 20 grand is small change and that's the sort of people we look after."
The difficulties, says Chandler, come when the high rollers start working with professionals, that rare breed that can and do make a consistent, and substantial, profit: "Professional punters can get hold of their accounts. That's the dangerous thing. We have a lot of systems in place for the smaller players. With the high rollers, it's feel for the person and their account more than anything."
And when that account is handed to a pro? Chandler won't say very much. He simply gives a cool smile: "We have a little chat. Their account managers are always on first name terms. It very rarely happens though." How do they deal with a client affronted by this: "Diplomatically. We take them out for lunch."
One difficulty that the credit crunch has brought is that many of these people have been sitting on their money rather than betting: "What we did see was a huge drop-off when the crisis hit. It wasn't people who had lost their money so much, although some had. It was, I think, that people were worried about what could happen. There was all the fear with the banks. No one really knew that their money was safe because no one really knew who was in trouble. It's a market that is only just coming back. I'm hoping the World Cup will bring more back."
We're approaching the poker end game. The forced "blind" bet that has to be made every hand has now reached a significant percentage of the chips that are on the table. While we've been talking, Chandler's stack has gradually grown, while mine has shrunk. He puts a big bet in and I feel, with an ace, that I've no choice but to go all in. Of course, he has me beat. And there's another of those smiles as he collects the chips – before offering to make the donation anyway. He's clearly enjoying one of his rare trips back to Britain, although when it comes to business, his eyes are on Europe and especially the East.
"Macau is at its peak, it's overtaken Las Vegas for turnover now. An extraordinary place ..." Chandler has websites aimed at the Chinese and they occasionally get closed down. But he says: "I think if the Chinese Government wanted to close us down they'd have done it by now. We have to use different urls every now and again, because they have a purge once a year, but I think it's a safety valve. That's why Macau is there. While they're gambling they're not doing anything else. They're not organising opposition parties."
Europe too is growing, and Chandler's business is gradually going legitimate as EU members liberalise regulations. As for Britain, Chandler says the future is all online. He sold his betting shops (bar one) several years ago to Coral and is glad he did: "I see more and more betting shops are becoming unviable at the moment. More and more people are going online. Long term we wouldn't want to be involved in betting shops."
Which leaves Chandler's business at the racetrack. He's not optimistic: "At Chepstow we once took three bets in a day. Where we are, Newmarket, Cheltenham, Ascot, we do good business, but the smaller tracks..."
He blames betting exchanges, and says he still thinks allowing people to take bets from others over the internet without a licence should be illegal. "You could get jailed for doing that in a pub. I don't see the difference with the internet." However, and now he is smiling again, he adds: "Really, I wish I had thought of it myself. That's the truth of the matter."
The CV: Victor Chandler
* Born in 1951, he took control of Victor Chandler from his father in 1974. The bookmaker was founded by his grandfather, William, in 1946.
* Moved business to Gibraltar in 1998, followed by Ladbrokes and Stan James. Relocation seen as responsible for Gordon Brown abolishing gambling duty in 2001.
* Set up office in South Africa ahead of this year's football World Cup, making him first to enter the market.
* Lives in Sotogrande, where he runs a stud farm and stables with a string of 26 horses and 32 hectares of land.
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