Dianne Thompson: The feisty Yorkshire lass who fought off Richard Branson

If you want to infuriate a certain kind of modern businesswoman, the easiest way is to describe her as having ‘balls’. The correct, gender-neutral compliment is to reference her ‘guts’ instead.

Balls, guts… it couldn’t matter less to the redoubtable National Lottery chief Dianne Thompson, 63, who is retiring after 14 years of defending the fort against all-comers, including Sir Richard Branson.

When she saw off his challenge in 2000, she appeared on TV proclaiming: “I’ve got the balls. Balls of steel.” An admirer marked the triumph by having a pair specially made for her, says The Sunday Telegraph. They sat in her office as a winking reminder to anyone who dared cross her.

The self-proclaimed “feisty, five-foot-nothing Yorkshire woman” is leaving to run a hotel on the Isle of Wight. Thompson says she fell in love with the 17th-century George Hotel in Yarmouth when she first visited 23 years ago.

Now she has ambitions of turning the place into a culinary Mecca, having installed Michelin-starred chef Robert Thompson (no relation) to open a restaurant. “I know absolutely nothing about running hotels,” she says. “I shall learn.”

Thompson leaves “a business in good shape”, says The Sunday Times. Camelot, which has been owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan since 2010, recently secured a renewal of its licence to run the lottery till 2023, and last year reported sales of £6.7bn, “the second best year the game has ever had”.

True, the number of punters has fallen: in 2002, it was reckoned that 85% of the adult population played. But the figure today is still a remarkable 70% (see below).

Thompson’s path to the lottery wasn’t an obvious one, says the Daily Mail. The daughter of a butcher, Thompson grew up an only child in Batley, West Yorkshire, in a tiny terraced house “with an outside loo and a sink that doubled as a bath”.

Her parents “had nothing”, she says. After grammar school, she read French and English at Manchester and worked her way up through the marketing departments of ICI, the Co-op, Woolworths and Signet (formerly Ratners), joining Camelot in 1997.

Dogged by a slump and allegations of fat-cattery, Camelot seemed highly likely to lose its licence to Branson in 2000, but Thompson prevailed in a “David-versus-Goliath” personality battle. “He was very charming about it,” she later told The Observer. He said: “they wouldn’t have got it without you”.

Thompson has left some unfinished business. Her mission to see off billionaire media tycoon Richard Desmond’s rival Health Lottery has stalled (Camelot lost a legal battle), but she remains a fervent advocate of the Lottery and its power to do good.

Banned from playing for all these years, is she now planning to start? “Too right I am,” she told The Daily Telegraph. “It could be me.”

How to win the Lottery – and what to do if you do

Dianne Thompson reckons to have made 3,500 people millionaires during her time as chief executive of Camelot. What’s her advice if you turn out to be one of the lucky

“It can be a massive, massive shock,” she told Jane Fryer in the Daily Mail. “We have some winners who don’t have a bank account, many who don’t have a passport.”

At the opposite end of the scale, “if we get a massive rollover jackpot, I can guarantee that my 20 best-selling Lottery stores will be in the City and Canary Wharf… the City boys won’t get out of bed for £1.8m, but when it’s a rollover, they all come out to play”.

Everyone who wins more than £50,000 is allocated a special winner’s adviser and an expert panel comprising a financial adviser, solicitor and tax adviser. But Thompson’s first advice, says Cole Moreton in The Sunday Telegraph, is to “keep your mouth shut and go away”.

“You’ve got to take time to get your head around it,” she says. “It’s all too easy to say, ‘I’ll give some to you, and some to you…” But don’t make any promises to begin with. Take
financial and legal advice, “realise you’ve got to pay tax on the interest you earn” and then “be as generous as you can”.

Since only one in five winners go public, Thompson has no information on what most do with their winnings. “But I can tell you that the amount that goes back to charity is phenomenal.”

A “multitude” of books have been written giving advice on how to win the lottery via strategies such as “wheeling”, which involves buying multiple tickets, says Richard Gray in The Daily Telegraph. Prediction software is also widely available. “In fact, none of these have ever proven to be effective.”

However “lucky” the numbers you choose, or whatever system you opt to play, your chance of winning the Lottery jackpot remains the same: one in 13,983,816.