ollowing the decision by James Henderson to step down as CEO of William Hill, the company is now focused on finding his successor.
Chairman Gareth Davis said that Philip Bowcock’s priorities as interim CEO are clear, “principally the continued turnaround of the online business.”
While reasons for Henderson’s pending departure occurring in four weeks have not been given, the online numbers said a lot. Despite online net revenue rising 4% to £550.7m for 2015, online gross profit dropped 11% to £424.6m and online operating profit decreased 29% to £126.5m. Even with the UK point-of-consumption tax (POCT), the numbers have not been received well by the industry. Online net revenue then fell 11% year-on-year for the 17 weeks ended 26 April 2016.
Bowcock has moved over from CFO on an interim basis and his chances of being given the job on a permanent basis would appear mixed at this point. Despite not having been with Hills or having been in the industry for long, joining in November last year, he has been around the leisure industry for a while, following his stint as finance director of Cineworld. If you want to judge on numbers, then Bowcock boasts a strong track record. Bowcock began working for Cineworld in December 2011 and its group revenue for that year was £348m. For 2015, the year where Bowcock departed for Hills towards the close, group revenue was £705.8m, up 14% from the previous year. Cineworld’s profit before tax that year was up 48% to £99.7m.
When Hills searched for a replacement for Ralph Topping in 2014, who had been with the company for 44 years, the last six of which as CEO, Henderson was said to have come out on top of a list of 14 candidates that included both internal and external names.
What Henderson’s appointment showed was that Hills was continuing with the theory of “good things come to those who wait”, as Henderson had been with the company for 29 years and stepped up from Group Director, Operations
Should a similar policy still be in place, then the standout candidate from its current executive team would be Corporate Affairs Director David Steele. Steele has been with Hills for over 25 years and his current duties cover a wide range of important areas; public affairs, public relations, compliance, security, legal, corporate responsibility and health and safety.
What are the chances Hills could look towards one of its CEOs that are already in place with William Hill US and William Hill Australia? The 2015 figures would have reflected well on US CEO Joe Asher, who has been with Hills since 2012, with net revenue climbing 12% to £33.3m and amounts wagered growing by 36%, though operating profit went down 5% to £9.2m. It is worth noting that William Hill US contributed just 2% of group revenue, emphasising the gap between taking care of side business and taking care of the business as a whole.
There were some tough numbers reported for last year for William Hill Australia, led by CEO Tom Waterhouse, who is coming up to his three-year anniversary with the business. For 2015, William Hill Australia’s net revenue was down 20% to £97.9m and operating profit decreased 46% to £13.4m. Again, this is not business that Hills is excessively reliant on, as it made up 6% of group revenue.
The Australian Open was singled out as being successful, with its sponsorship of the event leading to c.1,000 customer acquisitions per day and a 680% increase in tennis in-play turnover.
Externally, the seemingly most logical step would be to look within the industry and around the online space in the UK, particularly as it has been made clear that online is where things need to improve. Moves such as Betfair appointing Breon Corcoran as its CEO in 2012, pinching him from the position of COO at Paddy Power, come to mind. Corcoran has since overseen a merger between the two operators and the enlarged group reported operating profit of £42.5m for the first quarter. Bet365, the world’s biggest online gaming operator, in terms of generated revenue for the 12 months to November 2015, or GVC Holdings, are areas where Hills could look to sort out the online problems.
Whoever is chosen to succeed Henderson, it is important to remember that not all is lost. Yes, Hills has missed out on M & A activity, but it may not be impossible to revisit the idea of striking a deal with 888, which is also still likely looking for a partner to go with to the M & A dance. We are also yet to see how Hills’ involvement in NYX Gaming Group’s deal to buy OpenBet for £270m, of which £80m was contributed by Hills, will pan out.
The online figures were always likely to be impacted by the POCT, but in terms of increases and decreases, the full year 2016 results are unlikely to be as heavily impacted, as it will not be playing off against a previous year where the POCT was not in operation.
Either way though, Hills has little time to rest on its laurels as the online market consolidates.
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