Karel Komárek: the billionaire lottery winner
Czech billionaire Karel Komárek looks set to win the race to run the UK’s national lottery. But he has his eyes on an even bigger prize.
As birthday presents go, winning the lottery isn’t a bad one – or so Czech billionaire Karel Komárek observed after his company, Allwyn, emerged as the “preferred bidder” to run Britain’s national sweepstake, having wrested the prize from the incumbent, Camelot. But the deal isn’t quite in the bag – not least, notes the Financial Times, because Komárek’s broader KKCG empire owns a Czech oil and gas business that has a gas storage joint venture with Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, prompting “anxiety from MPs from across the political spectrum”.
A mystery man
Komárek, 53, is scrambling to undo these links, and has condemned Putin and the invasion of Ukraine via his social accounts. Even then, he may not enjoy a straightforward run, says The Daily Telegraph. Camelot, which has run the lottery since its launch in 1994, isn’t going quietly and may mount a legal challenge against the Gambling Commission’s decision, potentially lifting the lid on a bidding process shrouded in secrecy. Formerly known as the Sazka Group, Allwyn runs lotteries across Europe.
It apparently impressed with its “vow to launch a digital investment spree”, halve ticket prices, and double the amount the lottery makes for good causes. It assembled a roster of British business luminaries, including Sebastian Coe and Air Miles inventor Keith Mills, who both worked with Boris Johnson on the 2012 Olympics when he was London mayor.
Komárek can now expect to find his past dealings under the microscope. But “some of the suspicion” with which he is “viewed in certain British circles can be blamed on xenophobia” and his “relatively mysterious profile”, says the Daily Mail. The fitness fanatic is thought to be worth $7.8bn. He runs his empire from a palatial residence in Verbier billed as “one of the finest properties in the Alps”, which was valued at £28m when it was finished ten years ago and “rents for almost half a million pounds a week” when he’s out of town.
The seeds of his success began in the aftermath of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution. Komarek grew up in a twobedroom flat in the South Moravian mining town of Hodonin. He was 20 when the Iron Curtain lifted. With a $10,000 loan from his father, he set up a business selling industrial parts, quickly expanding into oil and gas supply. “When the Revolution came, I felt I was born for the second time,” he told Vanity Fair. “I was so naïve – I had no clue.”
He soon wised up in the rough world of post-Soviet energy markets, showing similar pragmatism when he moved into lotteries. Having taken a minority stake in the Czech national operator, Sazka, in 2011, he acquired it outright within a year and in 2013, took advantage of Greece’s parlous financial state to co-acquire its stake in the listed gambling operator OPAP. Deals to run lotteries in Austria and Italy followed.
An even bigger prize
Komarek’s KKCG empire now encompasses energy, tourism, property, technology, private jets, and biomedicine, as well as the burgeoning lottery and gambling business. Winning in Britain, which hosts the world’s fourth-largest lottery, could add another $10bn to Allwyn’s revenues, says the FT. But the company has its sights set on an even bigger market. In January, it announced plans for a $9.3bn listing in New York, via a special purpose acquisition company (Spac) backed by Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs and Trump administration adviser. Lotteries, Komárek told Vanity Fair, are “probably the most interesting type of business I have ever been in”. He likes their potential to change lives – his own included.