Since taking over as CEO in 2014, Stéphane Pallez has driven FDJ’s digital transformation as part of the company’s FDJ 2020 strategic plan. This culminated in the privatisation of the French lottery and sports betting operator last November, beginning a new page in the history of the company.
Pallez has already proved she can drive change and inspire growth. Her next challenge will be to keep its new shareholders happy, and reinforce FDJ’s position in its home market, while driving its international expansion.
Digital sales at UK National Lottery operator Camelot soared past the £1bn mark during the first half of its 2019/20 financial year. While Jo Button can’t take all the credit, she has led the team that has delivered growth of 40 per cent to Camelot’s online unit in the past year.
Her phenomenal success rate is driven by a devotion to innovation that could see that figure repeated year after year. Every lottery could use a digital marketing superstar like Jo Button.
The audacious deal wins Flutter chief executive officer Peter Jackson a place in the Hot 50. Considering the fact that much of his tenure has been spent trying to fix the teething problems associated with Paddy Power’s combination with Betfair, the acquisition of Stars Group is something of a gamble. However, Jackson has proved himself a serial buyer of companies, with The Stars Group the cherry on the cake, following smaller acquisitions of FanDuel in the US and Adjarabet in Georgia.
The Stars Group is itself still trying to digest Sky Betting & Gaming, which it acquired last year for $4.7bn. But GVC Holdings has shown it can be done. Its acquisition of LadbrokesCoral – shortly after acquiring bwin and shortly after Ladbrokes merged with Coral – has set a precedent. Jackson will need an equally slick team in place to make it work.
The second most notable online gaming deal of the year belonged to Gamesys, which was acquired by JPJ Group for £490m, just four years after JPJ (in its previous guise as Intertain) bought the Jackpotjoy, Starspins and Botemania brands for £750m from… Gamesys!
Not only did Gamesys chief executive officer Lee Fenton help engineer these fantastic double deals but he also ended up scooping the top job at the combined company, which was renamed… Gamesys!
It takes a special kind of genius to sell your company to the same buyer twice and to also win the contract to supply the acquirer in the time in between. But joking aside, Fenton and his team have proved themselves one of the most adept operational outfits of recent years. It celebrated the union in its first post-completion results announcement with a 23 per cent increase in revenue to £92.4m for the third quarter of 2019. Fenton is a canny operator and one can expect much more from him in the M&A market in the coming years.
While the Goliaths of UK online gaming have been busy, their land-based counterparts in the US have also been turning to M&A. Eldorado Resorts transformed itself from regional casino player to gaming royalty with its $8.58 billion acquisition of Caesars Entertainment.
Chief financial officer Bret Yunker joined Eldorado from JP Morgan in February and was immediately thrown into one of the most complex deals the industry has seen. Twenty years in the banking industry with clients working across the gaming, lottery and online sector allowed him to hit the ground running.
The Caesars acquisition did not come out of the blue. It followed the acquisitions of Isle of Capri and Tropicana. With William Hill recently in talks with old Caesars, and chief executive officer Tom Reeg talking about spinning off the online gaming operation, you can expect Yunker to be as important a figure in 2020 as he was in 2019.
On the back of its daily fantasy sports operation, DraftKings has raced to the front of the fledgling sports betting market. Its speedy rollout and partnerships have been shaped in part by chief legal officer Stanton Dodge, who will also have had a major influence on the company’s acquisition of sports betting supplier SBTech.
Described as a “super strong general counsel” by one of our judges, Dodge will have been pivotal in unpicking the company’s contract with Kambi to make way for SBTech.
DraftKings chief financial officer Jason Park also wins a place in the Hot 50. The former Bain Capital partner joined the company in June and set about structuring the deal to acquire SBTech and list on Nasdaq. The deal involved a merger with a special acquisition vehicle led by former MGM chief executive Harry Sloan, which then acquired SBTech. DraftKings’ ambition is almost limitless. Park and Dodge will be major assets in fulfilling that ambition.
The role of the in-house lawyer has changed enormously over the past few years, as the best of them respond proactively to the responsible gambling challenges set for them by regulators and the attendant PR pressures of media and politicians.
Nobody has responded better than GVC Group legal director Michael Leadbeater, who arrived from William Hill in September 2018 and has ushered his company through a period of unprecedented growth and change. Our judges singled Leadbeater out as one of the industry’s leading in-house counsels.
Playtech’s head of regulatory affairs and compliance, Ian Ince, is a spectacular advocate for his company and the wider industry. Not afraid to speak truth to power, Ince has been a strong voice in the industry’s response to a series of challenges laid down by the UK Gambling Commission.
Playtech took a big plunge when it acquired responsible gambling tool BetBuddy two years ago. Its CEO Simo Dragicevic has blossomed at the larger company, joining up product teams, Ince’s compliance team and his contacts in academia to help make Playtech’s products safer for players.
Dragicevic and fellow Hot 50 winner Phil Horne, chief executive officer at SG Gaming, have led the industry’s response to the UK Gambling Commission’s challenge to create an Industry Code for Games Design. The pair have marshalled efforts from Blueprint Gaming, Gamesys, Microgaming and more, and are expected to deliver the code by the end of March. It is quite some challenge but Dragicevic and Horne have embraced the test with gusto – and have reportedly impressed the regulator with their zest and innovation.
The Industry Code was first mooted by the Remote Gambling Authority (RGA), which embraced its land-based brothers and became the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) during the past 12 months.
The BGC has recruited its first chief executive in the form of Michael Dugher, who joins from UK Music, where he has been chief executive since stepping down as a Labour party MP in 2017. Dugher was shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport (the government department responsible for gambling) and is a close associate of Labour’s most vociferous anti-gambling campaigner Tom Watson. That relationship might well be tested. Watson left the House of Commons during 2019 but vowed to continue to fight for gambling reform.
Dugher will have to recruit a team with the wit and imagination to lift the industry’s representation to a whole new level, as the new UK government ponders how it will fulfil its election manifesto promise to revisit the Gambling Act.
Michael Dugher of the BGC could take a leaf out of the book of Mikel López de Torre, chairman of Spanish industry group Jdigital. López de Torre has played a crucial role in uniting the industry in Spain. Sensing the political mood, he introduced a responsible gambling and betting advertisement code in the country before the authorities enforced one.
While the UK Gambling Commission has raised the bar with its approach to responsible gambling, it is not a UK-specific phenomenon. The National Council on Problem Gambling executive director Keith Whyte is an unsung hero, pushing the responsible gambling agenda in the US further than anybody has done in the past. As the fervour around sports betting increases, his role is going to become more and more important.
Washington DC’s Office of Lottery and Gaming opened its sports betting licensing process in December with an innovative fast-track procedure for those already licensed in certain other jurisdictions. DC Lottery executive director Beth Bresnahan is one of the youngest and smartest regulators working in the US. The former executive director of the Massachusetts State Lottery also brings a wealth of experience from outside the industry. Her communications and media skills mean she is likely to become one of the industry’s most prominent figures.
Equally noteable is the current IAGR president and senior adviser of The Norwegian Gaming and Foundation Authority, Trude Felde, who will be an important figure as regulators increasingly look to cooperate across national boundaries.
Damian Xuereb has ensured that Kambi has had a far bigger impact on the US market than many would have expected. His masterstroke was signing a deal with DraftKings but he has followed that with a potentially huge deal with Penn National and others with the likes of Ohio-based casino operator Jack Entertainment and New York-based Seneca Gaming Corporation.
He will hope the latter deals pay off after DraftKings acquired rival supplier SBTech and promised to unwind the Kambi deal. Xuereb will not let that hitch get in his way. With Xuereb at the helm, you can expect Kambi to be operating in every US jurisdiction that matters.
Drew Svitko began his career in the lottery industry nearly 20 years ago and is now leading one of the most innovative and top-performing lotteries in the US. He is a visionary leader, launching one of the country’s best performing iLotteries in May 2018. It has since gone on to generate $642m in sales.
Svitko has positioned the Pennsylvania Lottery as an innovation leader. It has launched a series of new products and new categories and pioneered digital technologies, many of which were firsts for the US lottery industry. Pennsylvania can expect to stay ahead of the pack with the inspirational Svitko in charge.
Darren Small manages Sportradar’s 400-person team of trading staff across four continents and eight countries. He has been instrumental in establishing and managing Sportradar’s bespoke, market-leading risk management and trading solution, Managed Trading Services (MTS) since it launched in 2014 and in 2019 added 45 new clients to a list that now numbers over 150.
He has managed the product’s growth in tandem with demands from the mushrooming client base, adding pre-match, live and premium cricket during the last year. He is renowned for his commitment to his team across the world and is a key player in Sportradar’s continuing success story.
Better Collective was founded more than 15 years ago, but its meteoric growth in the last few years has seen the company emerge as the leading publicly-listed iGaming affiliate. Co-founder Jesper Søgaard has been there every step of the way as CEO.
He led the company through the acquisition of seven companies in 2017, managed its Stockholm IPO the following year, and helmed its entrance into the US market in 2019. While other listed affiliates have floundered, Better Collective has thrived and, for that, Søgaard deserves immense credit.
Since being promoted to head of key accounts 18 months ago, Björn Sjöberg has excelled. He handles most of Evolution Gaming’s tier-one customers and is simply amazing at it. He knows the businesses of his customers inside out and is always equipped with new ideas and data to back up his recommendations.
Whether he is adding more tables or changing limits, his advice is invariably spot on. Clients love him and so do his bosses.
Liz Siver joined NeoPollard Interactive (NPi) more than two years ago after spending most of her career at Microsoft, leading a team which delivered IT services to state and local government customers across the US.
As general manager of NPi, the iLottery joint venture between NeoGames and Pollard Banknote, she has used that experience to help the company expand its solutions to state lotteries in Michigan, New Hampshire and Virginia, among others. In the process, she has transformed NeoPollard into one of the leading North American iLottery suppliers.
In the space of just 18 months, Oren Cohen Shwartz has revolutionised Skywind Group and transformed the company into a supplier of premium content to tier-one operators in regulated markets.
During 2019, Skywind Group secured six licences – in the UK, Malta, Spain, Romania, Alderney and Gibraltar. It had its games certified and launched in Italy, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden and Portugal. It has struck deals with the likes of bwin.party, The Stars Group, Kindred, Snai, Ladbrokes, Coral, Gala, Superbet, Caliente, VideoSlots, Sportingbet, Eurobet, Hero Gaming, The Sun and more.
Shwartz inspired his team to develop 70 games during 2019. He is travelling at a phenomenal pace that few – if any – can match.
Alex Sefton is one of bet365’s many unsung heroes. He is regarded by some as the guy who gets things done at bet365. Whether that is launching in new markets such as Estonia, Greece or Mexico, or updating products in Denmark and Spain, it is always accomplished with a skill that continues to drive revenue. On top of all that he has also been responsible for the development and deployment of an entirely new gaming platform. As such, he plays a key part in the strategic development of the world’s leading sportsbook operator.
Furthermore, he is a great advocate of collaboration across the whole industry and was the driving force behind solutions for the updated Apple App Store regulations. Sefton is the kind of dynamic and collaborative force that every team needs.
Israel Rosenthal worked his way up from customer support to COO during his long period at former PokerStars owner Rational Group. His time at the helm of MuchBetter is evolving at a much faster rate.
Rosenthal can reasonably claim to have launched the fastest-growing payments company in iGaming. He might have expected to secure a deal with The Stars Group but integrations with 888, Pinnacle, Casumo, Lottoland and Interwetten have shown that was not purely down to old contacts. Rosenthal has developed an innovative solution that operators and customers love.
The past 12 months have seen 1X2 Network become one of the most in-demand game developers in the world, with its content now live across thousands of operator sites. Spearheading that rise is Kevin Reid.
The executive has led 1X2 Network’s entry into core regulated markets and built a hugely talented commercial team during his seven-plus years with the company, fostering partnerships with the likes of bet365 and BetVictor. Taking on more responsibilities than just CCO, Reid has also been responsible for bolstering 1X2Networks own aggregation platform. With Reid’s desire and commitment leading the way, 1X2 Network looks set to continue on its impressive growth trajectory.
John O’Reilly is one of the most experienced men on this list. He has a CV that takes in most of the UK’s leading operators and he continues to make management look like a simple exercise. He has overseen a year that has witnessed the operator boost its share price by almost 90 per cent. This has been on the back of a transformation programme that has been implemented efficiently and has paid off quicker than might have been expected.
While costs have needed to be cut, he has handled that sensitively while implementing new technology with a focus on customer experience. He has shown a willingness to invest in new machines and property refurbishment. At Rank, O’Reilly has performed a tricky balancing act with some panache.
Laura Nash is a ten-year veteran at Stars, where she worked in business intelligence before transitioning to marketing two years ago. She brings strong analytics and expertise in maths and psychology to Stars’ performance marketing efforts across the verticals.
The Flutter takeover of Stars makes any predictions fraught with difficulty, but if she continues her current trajectory, Nash is a CMO in the making.
After nine years at Microgaming, Chris Looney joined the fastest-growing supplier in online gaming. Red Tiger has continued its extraordinary growth curve with Looney pulling in the deals that culminated in the supplier’s sale to NetEnt.
His commercial nous is second to none. His customer care is legendary. Red Tiger’s commercial fortunes lie in one of the safest hands in the industry.
Jason Lisiecki’s impact on IWG since joining from William Hill in 2018 has been huge. He has brought experience at Michigan Lottery to help clients launch schemes such as the Atlantic Lottery’s (ALC) Cash Buster ticket, which encourages cross-promotion between retail and online; a weekly game launched at Pennsylvania Lottery; and a new Lottery Instants tab at BCLC.
He has launched a Strategic Insights unit, which has helped clients such as ALC expand iLottery sales by 52 per cent. Lisiecki is driving the expansion of iLottery in North America in a manner few can match.
The Stars Group has not been content with building the world’s biggest online casino in terms of revenue, it also wants to build the best. It has been rebuilding its casino platform from the ground up and Conor Leavey has been working at the sharp end, reshaping the product to make it stand out from the crowd.
Leavey is leading the team doing smart work around personalisation and building a differentiated product. It is early days but the intention is to move away from the standard grid of tiles, towards a casino experience that justifies the use of the word ‘experience’. Leavey’s own experience suggests he is exactly the right person to pull it off.
The fact that Carsten Koerl has not featured in the Hot 50 before is remarkable, but it speaks volumes about the understated brilliance of the Sportradar founder.
Since launching the company in 2001, he has driven a growth curve that is almost unrivalled – from tech-focused startup to global leader in sports data and audiovisual content, as well as sports integrity.
Few founder CEOs have remained in their post for so long and overseen such remarkable growth.
In the rush to market in the US, few have approached the terrain with the careful strategic planning applied by Jon Kaplowitz and his colleagues at Penn National.
They have devised a national strategy that takes in all of its 41 properties in 19 states. Furthermore, Kaplowitz has cut deals with a mixture of market leaders and insurgents that balance the present needs with a desire for future innovation.
While Kaplowitz’s strategic planning is second to none, the business has also managed to launch retail sportsbooks in ten locations in partnership with William Hill, while launching under its own name in Iowa. Kaplowitz will ensure Penn continues to make smart decisions.
Todd Haushalter has been described as a genius. While Evolution excels in almost everything it does, it would not be an understatement to declare that it would not be where it is without Haushalter’s product brain.
Haushalter brings the innovation and eye for player-friendly solutions that guarantees success. His brilliance ensures Evolution stays ahead of competitors with deeper pockets. Put simply, Haushalter is the superstar of live casino.
In his eight years with the company, Ravi Haldahalli has led the effort to modernise Atlantic Lottery’s systems technology, with a focus on integrating the consumer’s retail and digital experience. He is the man responsible for architecting a complex, multi-stage evolution of the lottery’s technology systems to a fully-integrated ecosystem.
Introducing new technology such as QR codes and mobile apps to the lottery, he continues to push forward changes in digital customer engagement, in retail, online and via mobile for one of North America’s most proactive lotteries.
Christian Genetski is the exemplar for any aspiring lawyer seeking to double up as a business leader. Genetski is a fantastic lawyer and as chief commercial officer he has overseen the metamorphosis of his company from daily fantasy sports operator into sports betting and DFS market leader.
In New Jersey alone, FanDuel has raced to become market leader – way ahead of its nearest rival, DraftKings. It has also rolled out sports betting operations in Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia. It will not be long before you see it elsewhere, after the company signed a deal with The Cordish Companies group, which has venues in Pennsylvania, Maryland,Washington DC and elsewhere. There could be nobody better to oversee this aggressive rollout than Christian Genetski.
Alberto Eljarrat is one of the most prominent figures in the Spanish industry and his attitude towards innovation, responsibility and transparency has driven Sportium to continually operate as one of the leading sportsbooks in the country.
Eljarrat will need to ensure a smooth transition after GVC Group sold its 50 per cent share in the business to joint venture partner Cirsa. GVC will continue to operate as a B2B supplier but the new relationship will need to be managed delicately. Eljarrat can be relied on to lead the business into a new era.
James Coxon has made a huge impact at SBTech since joining as business development director from Scientific Games in early 2019. He was swiftly promoted to VP of commercial after just six months and given wider responsibility for all of SBTech’s 50-plus global partners and for the company’s main revenue line.
Bringing new ways of working and transforming the sales team, Coxon was instrumental in winning high-value government contracts and secured a historic agreement with BetGenius that gives customers access to UK football rights.
Coxon has led a complete overhaul of the way SBTech executes its commercial strategy, culminating in one of its most successful years to date.
Irina Cornides has held numerous senior management roles as Intertain has transformed itself into Jackpotjoy Group and now Gamesys, where she has assumed the role of chief commercial officer. She features in the Hot 50 for the second time (after making the list in 2016 when chief revenue officer of Intertain).
Cornides is one of the few remaining survivors from those halcyon days. Amid all the asset yo-yoing between Gamesys and Intertain/Jackpotjoy/JPJ Group, Cornides has been honing her skills as CEO of the company’s largest division, Jackpotjoy, and has now become a formidable component of Gamesys Group’s new management team as the company undergoes a key period of integration and expansion.
Since taking charge of operations in 2018 Andrew Clucas has played a pivotal role in guiding the strategic direction of the innovative gaming supplier. He has overseen the launch of Microgaming’s independent studios strategy and quickly built up a roster of ten unique independent studios, which are creating content exclusively for Microgaming customers. They have delivered more than 40 exclusive games in the last 12 months.
Clucas has also overseen the launch of a new content team to develop and drive content strategy. The team is gathering ideas from across the company to ensure Microgaming remains at the cutting edge of game development.
With so many new ideas and initiatives, it would be easy to lose sight of the operation of the core business but Clucas has steered the casino vertical to double digit growth, through his unerring ability to retain focus and inspire others.
In his seven years in charge, Robert Chvátal has transformed SAZKA Group into the fastest-growing lottery operator in Europe, with a wide-ranging portfolio of retail and online operations across Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece and Italy.
Chvátal believes that teamwork, a focus on innovation, and speed are what is needed to succeed in the lottery and gaming sector. Sazka Group’s selection as the GIA Lottery Operator of the Year 2020 proves that he is doing things the right way.
Robin Chhabra has appeared in the Gaming Intelligence Hot 50 in both of his previous roles, as business development chief at Stars Group and at William Hill. His M&A feats at both are legendary but he now has his biggest challenge as CEO of newly-launched US sports betting business FOX Bet.
After acquiring Sky Betting & Gaming, Chhabra saw the potential to export the model to the US. In snaring FOX Sports to provide brand and other marketing assets, Chhabra almost guaranteed its success. Now we will see how Chhabra copes as an operator.
As one of the smartest and hardest-working men in the business, you can be sure he will make a success of FOX Bet.
Tim Bucher is exactly the sort of product genius that Silicon Valley specialises in churning out. After spells at Microsoft, Apple, Dell and a string of successful startups, Bucher has turned his attention to gaming, where he is continuing to display the innovation that has served his career so well.
Insiders say Bucher reimagined innovation at the company. He has launched products such as SG Connect, SG Game Service and, most excitingly, SG Vision. The latter could revolutionise the industry with vision-recognition technology that could not only overhaul the player experience but also introduce a guarantee of responsible gambling that brings a smile to the face of any regulator. Bucher’s impact could be monumental.
Elena Barber has risen through the ranks to assume her position on the executive management team at the beginning of last year. Having headed affiliates, digital advertising, performance marketing and central brand marketing, her experience is perfectly formed.
She will now have to navigate a landscape where media and political pressure are forcing operators to rein in their advertising; and where bonusing is becoming more contentious.
Barber has the versatility and nous to ensure Kindred is perfectly equipped to thrive in this changed landscape.
With over 15 years banking and payment industry experience behind him, few doubted that Bryan Blake would make a success of Hexopay, but few could have predicted the meteoric rise of the payments and risk management company.
Already profitable just two years after its inception, Blake has been at the forefront of attracting industry big-hitters like Kindred Group, Lottoland and William Hill.
With plans to double its staff by early 2020 and the feel-good factor Blake has instilled in the company, expect its rise to keep continuing.
Neil Banbury is approaching the ten-year mark at Kindred Group and has impressively climbed the ranks to become general manager of one of the operator’s key markets. While the operator has struggled with headwinds in Sweden and the Netherlands, the UK has been a real plus point for Kindred recently.
Banbury has been at the heart of all this, whether through unique sponsorship deals with the likes of record-breaking England soccer star Wayne Rooney or through Kindred’s responsible gambling commitments in the UK. He is the kind of understated superstar the Hot 50 was invented to celebrate.
BlueRibbon Software has quickly emerged as the leading jackpot marketing supplier in its short history, thanks to the vision and acumen of its co-founder and CEO Amir Askarov.
Askarov has landed a number of tier-one signings in 2019, including Mr Green, EveryMatrix and Scientific Games. He also oversaw the company securing its UK and Malta licences.
Having spent nine years at Playtech in key management roles, Askarov knows what it takes to drive a business forward and has positioned BlueRibbon for a spectacular 2020.
After several years in the doldrums, 2019 was a breakthrough year for Enlabs, the fast-growing iGaming operator previously known as Redbet and then Nordic Leisure. Andersson took over as CEO just over a year ago to lead the turnaround.
So far the results have been impressive, with Enlabs enjoying its best ever quarter in Q3 2019 as revenue hit €10m for the first time.
The former Catena Media CEO will be hoping his passion and experience will drive Enlabs to further glory as one of the leading operators in the Nordic and Baltic regions.
2019 was a transformative year for the Australian-based sports betting operator, with a successful IPO in Sydney and entrance into the potentially lucrative US betting market. Aitken has been essential to this. He joined PointsBet as chief operating officer and was promoted to CEO of PointsBet USA just five months later.
Under his charge, PointsBet has come out of nowhere to become one of the major operators in the fledgling US market, with market access deals in New Jersey, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan. Aitken will be crucial to PointsBet’s further expansion Stateside.