Gaming man bet on going solo - Friday 12th of August 2005

MANY of the entrepreneurs who have made headlines by capitalising on the world’s gambling boom seem to have come from far-flung places. So it is refreshing to know that one of Britain’s oldest and most traditional gambling companies, Ladbrokes, has also proved a breeding ground for talent.

Ed Ware, founder and chief executive of 32Red.com, an online casino operator based in Gibraltar, was at the British bookmaker for nearly 15 years before quitting to set up his own gaming operation, which today competes with his old employer.

Ware, 38, does not just have Ladbrokes to thank for his interest in both business and gambling.

As a boy at his rather “austere? Quaker school in Berkshire, Ware recalls his headmaster regularly talking about the exploits of the jockey Lester Piggott. And at home, his father, whom Ware describes as an entrepreneur, was a business transfer agent with a strong interest in horse racing — which clearly rubbed off on his son.

“We are quite similar in character,? said Ware. “I do think, sometimes, what would my father have done in this situation?? Ware left school at 18 and took a job as an assistant to the clerk at a magistrates’ court in central London — where Sir Richard Branson’s father worked as a stipendiary.

In 1987, while working at the court, Ware spotted an advertisement from Ladbrokes for trainee shop managers. “I had never thought about working in the betting industry,? he said. But he sailed through the application process and training and landed his first post, managing a betting shop at Highbury Corner in north London. He was barely 20 but took to it happily.

His first real challenge came when he was transferred to a shop in nearby Liverpool Road, where some of the punters were taking the shop for a ride by demanding they should be paid out at better prices than they had been given.

“It was a test, that’s for sure; Ladbrokes knew it was not an easy shop to run,? said Ware, who managed to solve the problem. He said his own interest in racing, which enabled him to engage with the customers, helped to sort things out.

After that early success, he began a rapid rise up the ladder, becoming a district supervisor with 10 shops under his control. Ware describes that as the “toughest? job he had. “It was truly middle management. I had to make sure the shops had everything they needed, but also I had an area manager with a strategic view of where things should go.?

Further challenges lay ahead when, after another promotion, Ware became responsible for integrating the acquisition of the smaller AR Dennis chain. By that time, he was working at head office and, in 1997, the day after Princess Diana died, was responsible for deciding how Ladbrokes should react — whether to open the shops, and so on.

Eventually, Ware was sent out to Gibraltar, where Ladbrokes had set up a phone-betting and fledgling internet operation. After the government changed the rules on betting tax, however, Ladbrokes was prepared to move much of the operation back to England, but Ware decided to stay.

He had spent a good deal of time settling in, making what would turn out to be valuable relationships with Gibraltar’s government officials.

Ware saw there might be an opportunity to start something of his own. “I thought I would try my own online bookmaker, but the big guys had the market sewn up.

“I thought a casino might work because the bookies saw it simply as an add-on. I could sense there was an opportunity to take some market share by offering a service that was tailored to people interested in casino games and not necessarily the 3.30 at Haydock Park.?

He put a good deal of his own money on the line to help secure the funding (he rues that he traded in his Jaguar for a Hyundai) and attracted backing from another nine friends and associates. Today Ware retains 36% of the business.

In common with most entrepreneurs, Ware worked day and night, because online casinos need people to man the phones in case players have to contact the site.

Big winners were also a problem in the early days. “We had one guy who won about £200,000 on the slots over a month. I got some interesting comments from the shareholders,? he said.

Of course, Ware is savvy enough to know, like everyone who works in the betting industry, that big winners are vital — it is what keeps people coming back.

The hard work has paid off, though: 32Red, 80% of whose customers are British, has a turnover of more than £5m and makes a profit. Ware, married with two children, declines to reveal just how profitable his venture is. But he said: “In our first full year as a business, 2003, we made money. In 2004, we made 10 times as much. And up to the end of June this year, we made as much as we did in the whole of 2004.?

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