TEN YEARS OF THE GAMING INTELLIGENCE HOT 50: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
We are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the industry’s most coveted honour by expanding our coverage of the Gaming Intelligence Hot 50 with a series of features looking back over the past 10 years.
During the build-up to the big unveiling, we will be looking at the careers of a few of the 450 people to have been honoured in the Hot 50. Today, we look back to February 2012 and the stars that appeared in that very first Hot 50.
In the nine years since Gaming Intelligence unveiled the first Hot 50 the gambling industry has changed beyond recognition. Mega-mergers have transformed companies such as GVC Holdings and Paddy Power, while the rise of regulated markets has dominated the strategic outlook.
Back in 2012, PokerStars had just one product – online poker on desktop computers – and was recovering from the day the FBI closed it down in the United States. Meanwhile, a little-known Canadian supplier called Amaya Gaming Group had just acquired Chartwell for around CAD$22.8m ($17m) and was in the process of acquiring Cryptologic for $29.8m.
Paddy Power was just called Paddy Power, while Flutter was a rival betting exchange that Betfair had acquired 10 years earlier and closed down. GVC Holdings operated just two brands – CasinoClub in Germany and Betboo in Brazil.
While there have been big changes in the industry, some things haven’t changed so much. Of the inaugural Hot 50 honourees back in 2012, more than 30 are still involved in the gambling industry today, including 14 who are amazingly still working at the same company (or a version thereof). Let’s take a look at where our first Hot 50 winners are now.
The superstar stalwarts
Denise Coates was the very first name to appear in the very first Hot 50 – even if she only owed that place to the fact that Coates came before Corcoran in the alphabet. Her brother and joint CEO John Coates also appeared in the first Hot 50 and they remain in charge of bet365 to this day.
It is the only company that remains in the same format today as it did back then. It has neither acquired, nor been acquired, nor listed.
Back in 2012 we wrote: “Denise Coates has revolutionised the sports betting industry and, more generally, the online gaming industry. bet365 did not invent in-play betting but it did it better than anyone had done before.”
In 2012, her company reported revenue in excess of £0.4bn and profit exceeding £100m. In the last financial year, those figures had soared to £2.98bn and £681.7m. It might be the only significant operator to avoid the market’s consolidation games but its gradual entry into the United States has shown that it is not content to rest on its laurels. The Coates siblings remain as hot today as they were nine years ago.
Betsson chairman and Group CEO Pontus Lindwall is another industry stalwart, who has become synonymous with the company that his father co-founded. Back in 2012, we wrote about Lindwall’s “focus, strategic vision and attention to costs”. Those qualities have served him well during the past three years, as he took over as Betsson Group CEO once again and the company clawed itself back from an uncharacteristically sticky patch. CEOs have come and gone during the past decade but Lindwall remains a constant. As the company begins new adventures in North and South America, you can be sure he will guide them with acuity.
Evolution Gaming co-founder Jens von Bahr has not needed to be quite as hands-on as Coates or Lindwall after handing over the chief executive’s chair to Martin Carlesund in 2016. Von Bahr remains as chair and was no doubt influential in the decision to acquire NetEnt, the company that Lindwall founded before it was spun out of Betsson. Ten Hot 50 entries since von Bahr’s debut appearance are testament to Evolution’s astoundingly strong growth curve. It continues to amaze.
Morten Klein has been a similarly influential figure on the development of Cherry, since his AutomatGruppen was acquired by the operator in 2009. He has served as chairman since then. His role was fundamental in the rise of B2B arm Yggdrasil and he was part of the consortium, which included Lindwall, that took the company private last year. Lindwall, Klein and von Bahr remain three of the most influential Swedes in the online gaming market. You could argue they are the most influential.
Daniel Lindberg co-founded Quickspin in September 2011 but it had not released a game when he featured in the very first Hot 50. At the time we said of Lindberg: “He believes more and more operators are developing their own platform so he wants to focus purely on games. He wants to rival the kind of quality NetEnt offers because he does not believe anyone does.” Quickspin has done this and more, and was acquired by Playtech in March 2016 for €50m. While fellow co-founders Joachim Timmermans and Mats Westerlund left Quickspin last year, Lindberg remains and continues to shine.
It has been more of a slow-burner for GAN (formerly GameAccount Network) founder Dermot Smurfit, who took the company public in 2013 in London and then switched the listing to New York last year. He has been in charge of GAN for 18 years and has remodelled the company from a supplier of multiplayer skill-based card and dice games to a fully-fledged casino platform supplier. After Smurfit moved from London to Las Vegas in 2015, the supplier has focussed on the US market to the extent that over 80 per cent of revenue now originates from there.
Playtech CEO Mor Weizer has endured almost as long as Smurfit, with 15 years in the hot seat. He has guided the company through its evolution from Teddy Sagi’s ownership to FTSE listing and beyond. In 2012, we wrote: “The Scientific Games and Sportech partnerships mean the company now has fantastic routes into the horse racing and lottery markets in the US.” Which just goes to prove that we don’t get everything right. Those partnerships are long-since unwound. Playtech took another eight years to make its US entry in partnership with Bet365. With that long standing ambition accomplished, one wonders where Weizer’s strategic vision will take the company next.
Other Playtech luminaries from the first Hot 50 such as Aaron Johnson and Shmuel Weiss stayed close to Sagi, working for Skywind and some of his other Asian-facing gaming businesses.
If Weizer’s role in Playtech’s trailblazing consolidation has been constant, Walter Bugno’s has been shifted hither and yon by GTECH’s evolution. Back in 2012, Bugno was the president and CEO of GTECH’s interactive arm GTECH G2 and of its VLT business Spielo. After a spell in charge of Lottomatica’s gaming division, IGT’s 2015 merger with GTECH threw Bugno into a role that saw him take charge of all IGT’s international business outside North America and Italy. As IGT consolidated those businesses into one Global Gaming function this year, Bugno assumed responsibility for a new business development unit exploring new market entry opportunities. IGT loves a re-org but Bugno has endured throughout.
Some things change. Some things stay the same. But Bill Mummery remains the figurehead of CeltonManx/SBOBET. He has done so since taking over in 2008. The Asia-facing operator pulled out of the United Kingdom after the introduction of the point of consumption tax in 2015. The operator continues to thrive elsewhere and recently announced the creation of a complimentary brand SBOTOP, which recently secured the biggest shirt sponsorship deal in Leeds United’s history. Mummery also announced the addition of a new live dealer studio in the Isle of Man. Mummery, who co-founded online sports betting pioneer betinternet.com, is one of the industry’s most experienced campaigners and continues to plot his company’s path with care.
Gone but not forgotten
Time has not been as kind to all of the pioneers celebrated in the first Hot 50. PokerStars founder Isai Scheinberg is on bail in California awaiting a sentence, which could be as high as five years in prison after pleading guilty in March of this year to running a multimillion-dollar illegal online poker business in the US.
Scheinberg sold PokerStars to Amaya for $4.9bn in 2014. It remains one of the most audacious deals the market has seen but the intervening years have been less than kind to its originator David Baazov, who was forced to sell his stake and leave the company after Quebec’s financial regulator went after him on insider trading charges. A judge stayed the case, accusing the regulator of a lack of rigour in bringing the charges. This, in turn, prompted Baazov to sue the regulator for CAD$2m damages.
There will always be work for lawyers in this industry. One of the very best is Jeff Ifrah of Ifrah Law, the very first American to feature in the Hot 50. His handling of Full Tilt’s legal affairs after Black Friday won him a place in the Hot 50 and he has gone on to represent PokerStars, Playtech, Bet365, WorldPay and numerous other high profile clients.
Of the other lawyers to feature in the first Hot 50, PokerStars general counsel Paul Telford has assumed the same role at lottery betting operator Annexio, and Betfair’s then chief lawyer Martin Cruddace has gone on to become chief executive officer of Arena Racing, where he remains to this day.
The regulators who featured include Jenny Williams, who helmed the UK Gambling Commission for over a decade until September 2015. She remains an independent director for the GB Greyhound Regulatory Board and sits on the Board of the Fundraising Regulator. Francesco Rodano was head of remote gaming for Italian gambling regulator AAMS until he joined Playtech in March 2016 as chief policy officer. Birgitte Sand was director general of Danish Gambling Authority for more than 12 years until her departure earlier this year. She recently became a member of the advisory board of the All-in Diversity Project. Juan Carlos Alfonso was deputy general director for the Spanish gambling regulator, but left after one year to join the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX). He has been general secretary of Spanish airport operator AENA for the past three years.
Others to have left the industry include influential figures such as Breon Corcoran, who was about to leave Paddy Power to become CEO of Betfair, when the first Hot 50 was published in 2012. He would, of course, go on to merge the two companies – thus beginning a process that would see the emergence of the combined entity as one of the most dominant consolidators in the industry. He made way for Peter Jackson in 2017 and re-emerged a year later as CEO of payment processor WorldRemit.
Selling up and moving on
The first Hot 50 was unique because it celebrated many of the founder figures of companies, whose successes needed to be acknowledged in the Hot 50’s first publication.
Income Access founder Nicky Senyard was one of the industry’s most dynamic and well connected executives until she sold her company to Paysafe in January 2017 and is now CEO of performance marketing firm Fintel Connect.
“Ed Ware is a real stormtrooper for his company,” we wrote back in 2012. His name was synonymous with 32Red until he sold it to Kindred Group for £176m in June 2018. Noel Hayden was similarly synonymous (albeit in a more low profile manner) with Gamesys until its sale to JPJ Group for £490m in 2019. “His belief that bingo and softer gambling games would find a wider audience has proved spot on and Gamesys has emerged as one of the best,” we wrote back in 2012. Hayden is understood to be pursuing non-gaming industry business interests, although we have heard whispers about a return.
Charles Cohen was CEO and co-founder of mobile gaming specialist Probability for 10 years until the business was snapped up by IGT (then GTECH) in May 2014 for £17.5m. What we said back then: “The only question over Probability’s future is how it copes with increased competition from other providers who can now see the money to be made from mobile casinos.”
Cohen is one of the few entrepreneurs to have stayed with his acquirer. He has been phenomenally successful in helming IGT’s PlayDigital sports betting offering in the US, where it is live in 13 states and counting. Last year, PlayDigital powered a third of all legal sports wagers taken stateside.
Richard Skelhorn founded online bingo-led operator Mandalay Media, which was sold to Intertain Group (now Gamesys Group) in 2014 for £60m and was then sold on to 888 last year. He also co-founded BGO, raising $17m from Playtech’s acquisition of a stake in the operator.
Oliver Slipper and Simon Denyer came together when Inform Group and Premium TV joined forces to become Perform in 2007, shaping the in-play fortunes of the betting industry. The co-CEOs worked together until Slipper handed the reins to Denyer in 2015. Slipper has gone on to advise a number of related companies as a non-executive director as well as sitting on the boards of the Professional Darts Corporation and English cricket’s zany new competition The Hundred. He is also chairman of sports marketing agency Pitch International.
Perform was renamed as DAZN Group and separated its streaming and B2B units, with the Perform sports content and data division merged with Chicago-based Stats to create Stats Perform. Denyer stayed on as head of DAZN until this summer, when he assumed another role in charge of subsidiary Access Industries.
Other founder figures have left the industry entirely. Hans Cornehl spent more than 13 years at Zeal Group (then Tipp24) before his departure in August 2015. He is now an angel investor and recently set up the Weyay Charity in Germany.
Maria Sandell co-founded lottery provider Genera Networks in 2009 but stepped down in August 2017. She now works for Världens Chans, which supports aid organisations in Sweden.
David Sargeant continues to influence the iGaming sector and is now co-founder and managing partner at Sports Gaming Investment Fund (SGIF), a specialist investment fund focused primarily on start-ups targeting the US sports betting market. What we said back then: “David Sargeant is the kind of technologist with an unerring grasp of what the customer wants that has made him a key figure in the growth of Zukido.” His counsel has been sought out by many of the US casinos entering the sports betting market for the first time.
Backstage heroes take centre stage
But the Hot 50 is, of course, loved because it is not just about celebrating the high profile CEOs and founder figures.
Ten years ago Christopher Coyne was head of paddypower.com when his old boss Breon Corcoran left to be CEO of Betfair. He left for a three year stint at Crown Resorts in Australia as chief marketing officer (CMO) but then returned to Europe at The Stars Group, where he has been CMO for the past three years. Coyne will think his career has come full circle after Stars was acquired by Flutter Entertainment – the latest incarnation of his former employer Paddy Power.
Similarly, Barni Evans was marketing director of Paddy Power until leaving to join the company’s newly acquired Australian operations as marketing director for Sportsbet. He was promoted to chief commercial officer in October 2016 and took over as CEO in March 2018, where he remains.
Hili Shakked spent nearly 12 years in charge of 888’s poker product, helping to revitalise the vertical following the introduction of its Poker 6 software and other innovations such as the PokerCam tables. Last September he joined NeoGames as head of its games studio, helping to deliver over 20 titles per year to leading North American and European lotteries.
Jamie Hart was director of innovation and customer experience at William Hill when he appeared in the first Hot 50. He was one of Ralph Topping’s key lieutenants at the thriving William Hill Online (WHO) joint venture with Playtech. Back then, we wrote: “Hart is in charge of customer experience at WHO and he understands what people want. While Playtech provides the software, Hart can take much of the credit for reinvigorating the product.” Since leaving William Hill, Hart has had stints at Tabcorp, Superbet, and for the past two years has served as product director for the revamped UK Tote Group.
Joachim Baca was one of Norbert Teufelberger’s most trusted lieutenants at bwin.party digital entertainment, serving as chief operating officer for more than 12 years. He was an important figure in the merger of bwin and PartyGaming. Following the company’s acquisition by GVC Holdings, which was announced in December 2015 and completed in August 2017, Baca has been CEO of Tipico for the past four years and is currently in the process of taking the German sports betting operator into the US.
Fredrik Lantz was game studio manager for NetEnt for more than 10 years, before joining rival supplier Scientific Games. He now works for Stockholm-based casual games developer Avalanche Studios.
Lars Widmark was co-founder and chief technology officer of Mobenga for ten years, before its sale to Playtech in July 2011. He is now CTO of text automation start-up United Robots and a partner in Djäkne Startup Studio.
Olafur Andri Ragnarsson served as chief software architect for more than 17 years at Betware, which was acquired by Novomatic in 2013. He worked another two years as technical visionary for Novomatic Lottery Solutions and continues to lecture at Reykjavik University, which he has done for 31 years.
Gareth Edwards was a key figure for 888 as director of marketing and strategy but moved on in October 2013 to work as a consultant. He is now involved in a number of industries including hospitality and wine auctions.
Edwards completes the list of those who have moved on to other non-industry interests. Some find it hard to leave – or don’t want to.
Ian Penrose led the strategic repositioning of Sportech from a heavily indebted £45m market capitalisation UK business to a £225m valued business, ideally positioned to benefit from the legalisation of sports betting in the US. What we said back then: “Penrose took a dying UK institution, The Football Pools, and internationalised it. He has achieved all this while retaining a down-to-earth style that makes friends of employees and business partners alike.” He left Sportech in December 2017 and has been a non-executive director of Playtech for the past two years. He has also been working as a consultant for the new UK Tote, an emerging sports data company, and more.
Clive Hawkswood spent most of his career fighting for the industry as CEO of the Remote Gambling Association (RGA) from its establishment in August 2005, before leaving in January 2019 as the RGA was folded into the UK’s Betting and Gaming Council (BGC). What we said then: “Hawkswood is a tireless, articulate and passionate spokesperson for the industry. Hawkswood has to balance confrontation with relationship-building. It is a balancing act he pulls off skillfully.” He remains involved in the industry as chair of the Responsible Affiliates in Gambling (RAiG), and a non-executive director of responsible gambling platform beBettor.
Jim Ryan departed bwin.party one year after the completion of the merger between bwin and PartyGaming, leaving Norbert Teufelberger in the hot seat. Ryan went on to found Pala Interactive where he has served for more than seven years, launching operations in New Jersey and soon Pennsylvania. He is also non-executive director of Gamesys Group and Gaming Realms.
There is one more member of that initial Hot 50, whose career has gone from strength to strength, culminating in his promotion to the chief executive’s seat at GVC Holdings in July this year. Shay Segev was chief operating officer at Playtech back in 2012, when he was honored in the very first Hot 50. He has featured a record four times since then, as his career has moved from Playtech to Coral to GVC and eventually into the hot seat of the hottest operator in iGaming following the surprise departure of Kenny Alexander. We will be hearing from Segev in an exclusive interview in the coming weeks as we focus in on some of the hottest names to grace the Hot 50.