Standards Matter… William Hill’s Bowcock seeks to follow Flint’s path

Scott Longley

 Scott Longley details why industry leaders Philip Bowcock (Group CEO of William Hill Plc) and Richard Flint (CEO of Sky Betting & Gaming) share an aligned vision and solidarity in raising industry social responsibility standards. In 2018, the betting industry has more to lose than just a punishing FOBTs judgement…

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William Hill has just endured one of those weeks. By the time chief executive Philip Bowcock stood in front of analysts last Friday to delve deeper into the annual results, the company had been hauled over the coals for past misdemeanours by the UK Gambling Commission and given a whipping by the press for its trouble.

On Monday the Commission announced that William Hill was guilty of “systemic” failures in its anti-money laundering and social responsibility processes, to such a degree that the company has to pay a penalty package of at least £6.2m.

The multiple failures occurred between 2014 and 2016 and included at least one instance of a customer using money from the proceeds of crime to fund their accounts. As the Gambling Commission said, the penalty figure levied “reflects the seriousness of the breaches.”

The timing was not helpful to the gambling industry’s reputation with the wider public, a fact that was seemingly acknowledged in the company results statement. “A key pillar of our strategy moving forward will be to act in a sustainable way,” the company said. “In the months ahead we will be taking a number of steps as a matter of urgency to ensure we embed this approach in our business for the long term.”

The sentiments echo those of Richard Flint, the chief executive of Sky Betting & Gaming, who took the opportunity of a speech at the recent ICE exhibition in London to extol exactly the same sustainability message.

Bowcock says William Hill’s failings exposed by the Commission were “clearly not good enough” but he steers clear of believing that similar incidents won’t happen again. While William Hill has instigated new processes to improve what was clearly a system not fit for purpose, he suggests that the new regime won’t be 100 percent effective.  “There is always the potential for the wrong thing to happen,” he says. “No process can be fool-proof.”

On the wider message sustainability and social responsibility, though, he is very clear that he agrees with one of Flint’s key messages that the industry as a whole has not done itself any favours when it comes to social responsibility and problem gambling. He suggests the fractured – some would say dysfunctional – nature of the gambling industry in the UK is at the root of the problems.

“We are only as good as the lowest common denominator,” he says. “I have to say the disjointed nature of the gambling industry is quite staggering. We are all in the same boat here.” He includes the National Lottery in this and noted that it had to date failed to pay a voluntary amount to problem gambling charity GambleAware.

He adds that he talks to Flint at SBG “regularly.” “We are aligned with the fact that this is an area where no company should be going it alone.”

That sense of cross-industry solidarity has somewhat broken down in recent times, of course. The biggest bone of contention remains the ongoing and seemingly forever looming decision in the UK government’s triennial review. Most industry and analyst expectations are that we are now in the final stages of the government finally coming to a decision over the maximum stake that will be allowed for B2 gaming machines.

It has been a bruising process for all involved. Most notably, it has left the relationship between the high-street bookmakers and the politicians of all parties shattered and broken and for that Bowcock suggests that previous management at the big bookmakers should shoulder their share of the blame.

“Four or five years back, the relationship between the gambling industry and the government has been pretty antagonistic,” he says. “There was a mutual distrust. It’s not as bad now, but it could be a lot better.”

Improvements, if they are to be made, will have to wait until the triennial review is out of the way but Bowcock signals a warning for the online sector. “The online guys now see what is going on with FOBTs is going to be landing on their doorstep pretty quickly,” he says.

The implication is that the anti-FOBT lobby isn’t going to stop campaigning even if it gets its preferred maximum £2 stake. More to the point for global businesses such as William Hill the regulatory issues it faces multiply with every new jurisdiction added to the business map.

The company has hopes that the SCOTUS cards will fall in its favour in the US, but in Australia, a new credit betting ban and the prospect of the introduction of a PoC regime led to a £238m writedown of the Australian business in this year’s results. It is more proof, as if William Hill needed it, that regulation comes with its costs as much as its benefits.

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Industry social responsibility standards and governance dynamics will be discussed and debated at the upcoming Betting on Football Conference (#bofcon2018 – 20-23 March – London- Stamford Bridge). Click on the below banner for more information.

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