Victor Chandler: the man who brought us tax-free betting

Victor Chandler never meant to follow his father into the bookmaking business. But pride got the better of him, and now his business has a turnover of £1bn.

Victor Chandler, 57, never meant to follow his father into the bookie business. With the industry overtaxed and threatened with nationalisation, he went to a Swiss catering college in the 1970s. He'd have stayed in Europe, if not for the fact that his father fell ill in 1974 and died shortly after. "I suddenly had a mother and two sisters to support" along with a struggling chain of bookies. Back home in Sussex, he considered selling up to Playboy, "as I never thought I'd get to grips with the business".

But Chandler had never been afraid of taking risks (at 17, he was thrown out of school at Highgate, after sneaking out to see a girl at the Marquee club in Soho) and he wouldn't give up without trying. "Pride, ego, whatever you call it" got hold of him and he decided to take the business on. It wasn't easy. Under the antiquated system then in place in Britain, a son had to work with his father at the pitches (the place on a racecourse where the bookie stands and makes the odds) for at least two years before he could take over. Chandler hadn't, so he lost the firm's prime pitches at Sandown, Goodwood and every other major racecourse in the southeast.

"It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I would have dedicated myself to the pitches rather than being more of a businessman." Chandler started refitting his father's "pretty run down" betting shops. By selling a few and refitting others, he made enough cash so that, during the Queen's Silver Jubilee year in 1977, he was able to set up a desk in the stands at Ascot, with four staff. "Because we weren't a big chain, we could give personal service" to people in the boxes, which were then owned by rich individuals rather than corporations. With runners hopping from top hat to top hat, Chandler attracted some big players, making about £200,000. "You could do a hell of a lot back then with a few hundred thousand. That really kick-started the business." Allied Irish Bank extended Chandler credit, allowing him to build more shops and buy into others. "I was always wheeling and dealing, continually looking to buy and sell. I'd buy a shop on Wednesday and sell it on Friday, buy the freehold in between and keep the old bookie on as a tenant." By 1978, he reckons the business was worth £1m, and he began expanding across Britain.

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Business grew steadily, but his next big step came in the 1990s. During the 1994 World Cup, he noticed there was a lot of demand from Asian gamblers to place big bets on football matches. But they were being put off by Britain's betting tax. Recognising that British gamblers would also be drawn to tax-free betting, he shifted operations to Gibraltar in 1998. "After that, no one would bet in the UK", forcing Gordon Brown to abolish betting tax in the 2001 budget. "We were the catalyst for change." The business remains in Gibraltar to this day, boasting a turnover of £1bn. So what's his secret? "One thing with bookmaking is that it's an awful lot like punting: never chase when behind, only push forward when you're going well. A lot of people have a different mentality. When they're winning they shut up shop, when they're losing they chase. That's the biggest mistake a bookie or punter can make."

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.