Denise Coates: the quiet queen of online betting

Denise Coates © Getty images
Denise Coates: an unshakeable reputation

Denise Coates set up a business from a portable office in a car park in Stoke on Trent in the early 2000s. What she built from there was a money-printing machine. Jane Lewis reports.

Ask Denise Coates how she came to be the highest-paid female executive in the world and her answer is simple. “I was always motivated at being the best at whatever I was doing – school, exams, sport,” she observed in 2016.

That dedication has certainly paid off when it comes to the readies, says The Guardian. If the bet365 owner’s record-breaking £265m pay packet was stacked up in new £50 notes it would form a tower as high as The Shard, London’s tallest building. Coates’ enormous pay package was more than three times greater than the £80m Tim Cook earned running Apple. And it wasn’t even a one-off. Last year she paid herself £217m from the spoils of the family owned business. Bet365’s online positioning means it enjoys a 25% margin on profits – far higher than traditional bookmakers. The firm is, in effect, “a licence to print money”.

Hitting the jackpot

The story of how “the quiet queen of online betting” and her family came to build their empire from a portable office in a Stoke-on-Trent car park is the stuff of industry legend, says the Financial Times. Coates’s father Peter, the 80-year-old son of a miner, became a successful local businessman and built a string of betting shops. But it was Coates, 51, an econometrics graduate, who twigged that the jackpot opportunity lay online. In 2000 she bought the bet365 domain name from eBay and borrowed to build sports betting technology that left slow-moving rivals choking on her dust.

Not long after Coates convinced her family to bet big on internet gambling, the first dotcom bubble burst. That proved to be the making of the firm and its co-founder. “By mortgaging their betting shops and selling other assets,” Coates and her family avoided having to answer to outside investors. That left her free to distribute profits “more or less as she wishes” – to staff, to Stoke City, the football club the group owns a majority stake in, and to local causes via a foundation. 

Coates comes across in her foundation videos as “a slight, smiling, wordless figure”. But as Forbes, which puts her wealth at $3.7bn, notes, she has always had a head for numbers. After taking her first-class degree in econometrics from Sheffield University, she began her career as an accountant, managing the books of her father’s business. Coates’s determination to move the business online “allowed bet365 to exploit a growing international market”. The focus she placed on “in-play” betting was also a breakthrough. “Most of bet365’s revenue now comes from bets taken during events.”

The wages of sin

Coates, a mother of five, has helped pull in 35 million customers and turned her start-up into the world’s largest online-gambling firm, with an estimated 8% share of a $43.1bn market. Critics suggest her fortune is built on the back of “the wages of sin”, says Jeremy Warner in The Sunday Telegraph. But within Stoke, one of the most deprived areas in the UK, she’s celebrated as “a local hero” after ploughing hundreds of millions into charities and the local football team.

She has become a “lightning rod” for criticism of the betting industry and the excesses of executive pay, says the FT. But in North Staffordshire, “the Coates family’s dedication to their home town makes their reputation almost impregnable”.