A knack for finding good bets and an audacious string of deals has put Kenny Alexander at the top of the gambling industry. Yet his fast and loose style is causing problems.
“Kenny Alexander’s rise to the top of the gaming industry has been so stealthy some of his competitors are still scratching their heads wondering where on earth he surfaced from,” observed the Daily Mail last year, soon after GVC’s shares hit a record high. “In gambling terms, he’s the 50/1 outsider who’s sneaked up on the rails to win by a nose.” In his ten years in charge, Alexander has ridden waves of change to transform a £26m firm, employing just seven people, into a global gaming giant worth £5.5bn at its peak.
Following a series of deft deals, culminating in the £4bn takeover of Ladbrokes Coral last year, GVC emerged as the consolidator to back: on the ailing high street and on the new terrain of the net, via its audacious £1.4bn takeover of Bwin Party in 2015. “While rivals sat on their hands”, the bold Scotsman – known as “the roll-up king” – “set about aggressively hoovering up companies” from his Isle of Man base.
The biggest prize of all
After last year’s landmark US Supreme Court decision to liberalise US sports betting, the biggest prize of all seemed in sight, says the Financial Times. True to form, Alexander has been quick to claim first-mover advantage, touting a recent joint venture with casino group MGM Resorts as an alliance of “the superpowers of gaming”. But past “wheeler dealer” moves and “shonky corporate governance” may yet put a spoke in the wheel, says The Sunday Times. GVC has been “writhing in the spotlight” for the past week following revelations that its boss effectively gifted its “scandal-hit” Turkish business to a trio of businessmen in December 2017 – including Ron Watts, a long-standing friend with whom Alexander recently opened a stud farm. “This isn’t the first corporate governance stink at GVC” and Alexander is “desperate to prove” it has improved its ways to win licences from the squeaky-clean Americans. But “the legacy” of a past moneyspinner, the “opaque” Turkish business, may prove hard to brush off.
Don’t rule out his chances, says the Daily Mail: gambling, after all, is in Alexander’s blood. He grew up in North Ayrshire and regularly visited Ayr races with his dad, a civil servant, placing his first bet at the age of 13. Racehorses remain “his main passion” and it was his love of racing that set him on his current trajectory. Thumbing through the Racing Post’s form guides in 2000, he came across an ad placed by Sportingbet, which was looking for a finance director. It proved the start of an extraordinary run. Seven years later, Alexander was ensconced at GVC; not long after that he bought up his old employer.
On the back foot
Alexander doesn’t look much like “a gambling kingpin”: he dresses modestly and has an “unassuming” manner, notes the Daily Mail. But he has “earned a reputation for ruthlessness”. Still, there’s no doubt he’s currently on the back foot, says The Sunday Times. In addition to the tricky questions GVC faces about Turkey, Alexander is also under the cosh from shareholders over his outsized pay packet and recent share disposals. “In March, Alexander and chairman Lee Feldman dumped £20m worth of stock in a day, driving down the shares by 20%.”
Feldman is due to retire soon. “Investors should push for a heavyweight replacement.” GVC’s conduct is “destined to attract more scrutiny” now it is trying to crack the US market. Kenny Alexander has made GVC a global gaming force to reckon with. But, left unchecked, his “fast-and-loose-style” could yet “cause problems”.