Independents can still have their day

Despite the Bowmans affair, Greg Wood argues there are advantages for punters in the survival of smaller bookmakers

At first sight, the continuing saga of Bowmans Bookmakers, which still hovers on the brink of receivership with at least pounds 200,000 owed to winning punters, is a story with nothing but losers. In attempting to carve out a share of a competitive market, Bowmans offered tax concessions and generous odds which could not be sustained, and both the business and many of its customers have suffered serious losses as a result.

Look a little further, though, and the winners in this mess become clear. The major bookies, and in particular the Big Three of Ladbrokes, Coral and Hills, would be unlikely to admit it, but the very obvious failure of an independent bookmaker - it was front-page news in the trade papers for days - will inevitably make many punters think twice before taking their money to a small local shop. It is understandable, but also thoroughly unfair.

Will Roseff is the chairman of the British Betting Office Association, which represents many independent bookmakers, and also the proprietor of the eight-shop Backhouse chain in Birmingham, which was founded in 1921. "Obviously people occasionally go skint," he says, "it happens in any business, but there are a lot of people who have been around for a lot of years. The fact is that small betting shops very rarely go out of business because small bookmakers hedge. Take the Frankie Dettori seven- timer at Ascot. We all laid fortunes for it in Yankees and so on, and they all got paid."

The greatest benefit for punters of an independent shop is the possibility of serious competition with the local branches of the Big Three, who are often far too content simply to sit back and wait for customers to walk through the door. Consider, for instance, some of the concessions offered by the four-shop Krullind chain in Ipswich. Like many independents, Krullind pay on the original and amended first place when a winner is disqualified by a stewards' inquiry, but they will also refund your stake if your horse is beaten by a short-head, if it is a faller in a hurdle race, or if it is beaten by less than half a length in a steeplechase.

"We try to make offers that the multiples just can't compete with," Bert Hatcher, Krullind's chairman, says. "I like to think going to the multiples is like getting a suit at C&A, while betting with us is like going to a tailor. We're more like a London club than a betting shop." Shop managers will supply any daily newspapers that their customers request, punters can enter a free weekly tipping competition regardless of whether they are betting as well, and all the shops open at 8am to attract backers on their way to work who want to take early prices. Hatcher is even considering the possibility of a Dial-A-Ride service to take customers to his shops on Saturdays.

"The big firms worry about a few extra quid a day," he says. "They want to charge people 35p for a cup of coffee when it probably cost them 3p. Why not just give them a cup of coffee?"

Hatcher's promotions are carefully costed and sustainable, unlike some of those which were available to Bowmans' credit clients. It is also likely that, while doing all he could to attract business, Ron Lloyd, the firm's managing director, took rather too much "live" money than was good for him.

That's live, as in live bomb, and its effect on a bookie's profit margins can be just as destructive. "If I could choose my punters," Roseff says, "I could bet with no tax tomorrow and still show a profit, but there are certain customers you will never beat in your life, and when you've been in business long enough, you know the ones to avoid. Bowmans were probably taking them on, and it's when you're trading to live money that you can get into trouble."

As well as avoiding the well-informed shrewdies, firms which take bets on credit - and it this arm of the operation which is almost always to blame when a bookie gets into trouble - may also have problems with "professional knockers", who open accounts but have little intention of paying up if they lose. Gambling debts cannot be recovered through the courts, and a few welching punters can soon cause cash flow problems, so anyone who lays large credit bets to new customers is asking for trouble.

The limits which some small bookmakers impose on payouts remain a deterrent for many punters, although even an eight-shop chain like Backhouse now has a maximum payout of pounds 250,000, while Krullind's limit is pounds 100,000. The independents remain a valuable alternative to the majors for punters seeking choice, however, and it is worrying that their numbers continue to shrink. According to Levy Board figures, 900 betting shops have closed in last two years, a reduction of almost 10 per cent to a nationwide total of about 8,600, and most of those closures will have been small businesses.

The failure of Bowmans should not deter punters from trying the alternatives to the Big Three. The next time your horse is disqualified by the stewards, or beaten a short-head, remember that a better way of betting might be just around the corner.

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