How I made a killing at the bookies

Ian Yates won his first bet at the age of eight. After a rocky start when competitors nearly put him out of business, the ex-politician is now head of a string of bookmakers across Ireland and Wales.

Ivan Yates, 48, has been gambling ever since his horse came in at 6/4 in 1967. "I was about eight, and my older brother came back from boarding school and showed me how to bet." Down on the quays in Enniscorthy, in Wexford on Ireland's south west coast, "I put one shilling on Lester Piggott at Bath and it came in for me. From that moment I was hooked."

It's hardly surprising, then, that 40 years later the one-time politician and wool merchant's son is running his own bookies, a €180m a year company called Celtic Bookmakers. Not that the journey has been an easy one. Indeed, since opening his first shop two decades ago, "I can think of several examples when we nearly went bust".

Elected to the Irish parliament in 1981, Yates set up a "relatively low-cost" operation in Tramore, County Waterford in 1987 with just a £10,000 loan from his family. It helped that, unlike retail, there was no inventory or stock. "All you need are pencils and slips and away you go." Still, these days he "shudders" to think of how "inept, amateurish and ignorant" he was in the beginning. He quickly opened a second store about 80 miles north of the first and was soon losing £400 a week. He also had to cope with fierce competition. One rival even began offering bets tax-free. "They were literally sticking my head under water to see how quickly I'd drown and didn't care if they lost money. They just wanted me closed down."

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Yates had to go to his mother for an £18,000 loan, "bigger than my mortgage at the time". If it hadn't been for his parliamentary salary he would have been unable to support his young family. To this day he advises any young entrepreneur "to have a basic stipend or salary to sustain you" before going solo.

However, his salary and the loan meant he could hold out against the competition: by 1992, Yates had six stores and was turning over IR£1m. But it wasn't until 2002, when he retired from politics, that the business really took off. "I saw an opportunity," he says. In a country mad about horses, where "you'll still get a Racing Post in every shop", the economic boom had seen total betting increase from about €600m in 1995 to €2bn-€3bn. "I put the pedal to the metal and expanded." In the process he transformed his bookie shops from "dark, smoky dens of iniquity to wonderful stores with caf bar lounge facilities and lounges". In 2006 he forked out an estimated €5m to acquire two small chains with a total of 20 shops. Today, Celtic operates 63 shops across Ireland and South Wales, and Yates has no regrets about leaving politics behind him.

"Politics was very good to me. But I do believe that you should reinvent yourself every ten years. Unless you have the passion, the energy and enthusiasm for something, which is just impossible in the same job for ten or twenty years, you've got to be honest and reinvigorate yourself. And often reinventing yourself is the best way to achieve this."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.