Chris Pitt meets 2DB’s operations director Angelo Sanzone

With over 25 years’ experience in the industry, first with Ladbrokes, then SIS, Chase Bookmakers, through helping forge Betfred’s Gargantuan expansion plans, and latterly with software developers 2DB, Angelo Sanzone can reflect with quiet satisfaction on a career that has emerged from the unlikeliest of beginnings, from a childhood tending sheep on an Italian mountainside via stints assembling double glazing and delivery driving for Lyons Cakes.
He was born in 1960 in a remote farming village in Southern Italy called Fumefreddo Bruzio. There was no electricity at the time – it wasn’t installed until 1965 – nor was there running water, gas, or sewage system until the late 1970s. The toilet was a cave located 100 yards away. Toilet paper consisted of fig leaves. Washing was done in a nearby river and drinking water obtained from a freshwater spring half a mile from village. It bordered on medieval.

 

“It was probably only a mile from the sea as the crow flies but as it was up in the mountains it would take half an hour to get there,” Angelo recalls. “We lived in a small terraced property; three rooms, one downstairs where the animals were kept – a donkey, a pig and chickens; a middle room, 12ft x 12ft, in which five of us lived – one large bed which my mum, my dad and my sister slept in, with a straw mattress in the corner which my brother and I top and tailed; and a loft area with a raised concrete plinth with a mixture of tripods and wood where the cooking was done.

“In the village there were about 30 families, all living like that. They existed by living off the land. Very rarely did we eat meat – that was a luxury – it was mainly potatoes and the vegetables we grew.

“By the time I was born, as the only work available in the area was on the land, the fathers and the elder sons were moving away. They were going to Northern Italy, Switzerland, Germany in order to find work, mainly in factories.

“They would live there and travel back home twice a year, in the summer holidays and at Christmas. The women were left at home with the children, tending the land, while the fathers would send money back.

“My father decided he would try to get work in England because my aunt had already gone there in 1959. She’d found a job as a cleaner in Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood, (near Watford) and she got my father a job there.

“As he had no money for the train fare to England, he cut down an oak tree on family land and made charcoal out of it. He sold the charcoal and that earned him the fare.

“We didn’t see him for two years. He came back in 1965 to collect my mother and sister, leaving myself and my younger brother with our grandparents.”

Between the age of five and seven, Angelo helped his grandfather tending the goats and sheep. The family had land around the village on which they grew vegetables.

Meanwhile, his mother and father worked hard and managed to save enough for a deposit on a house in Northwood. Angelo had had no contact with them until they returned in October 1967 when they collected the two brothers and brought them to England.

“I didn’t start school until September of 1967, when I was seven, so I’d only been going for a month in Italy,” he recalls. “Me and my brother – he was five, two years younger – came to England, didn’t speak a word of English, and went to St Philomena’s, a Roman Catholic school run by nuns and priest, in Northwood.

“The nuns were horrendous. Punishment appeared to come before teaching and a slipper on the backside and ruler across the palms was an everyday occurrence.

“The memory has stuck with me, certainly with food. To this day I can’t eat foods such as shepherd’s pie, baked beans and lumpy custard as I had my face pushed into all those for either not finishing them or refusing to eat them.

“Thankfully the school closed two years later so we then went to a normal primary school for a couple of years.

“The amazing thing is that, even though I hadn’t been to school until I was seven and had to learn the English language, I actually passed my 11-plus.

“My father was born in 1930. He needed to be there during the war to look after the animals because my grandfather wasn’t around, so he had to be the man of the family and had no schooling whatsoever, while my mother had only gone to school for three years. They didn’t see academic qualifications as a priority. They believed greater value was in the learning of woodwork and metalwork; it was about what you can do with your hands.

“I went to the local comprehensive. I loved school – I found it a big adventure –although I didn’t work very hard. I was the class joker with studies coming second place to having fun.”

He played for the school rugby team and also for Hillingdon Boys as a wing forward until a kick in the back whilst trying to retain the ball on the ground, left him with a hairline fracture to a lower vertebrae, ending any possibility of a future with that or any other sport.

During his last two years of schooling he made more of an effort and walked away, aged 16, with five O levels and a couple of CSE Grade 1s.

From there he did many jobs, beginning with working in a factory assembling double glazing windows. He then became a trainee electronics engineer with BICC (now part of Balfour Beatty), followed by a position as a driver’s mate at Express Dairy with the aim of obtaining an HGV licence. When that didn’t happen he worked for Bridgwater Windscreens, in a petrol station, as a delivery driver for Lyons Cakes and a TV rental company, and then for an insurance broker, by which time he’d met his future wife, Danielle, and realised he needed to settle down and find a job with prospects.

In February 1982 he came across an advert in a local paper for trainee betting shop managers with Ladbrokes. In spite of never having been in a betting shop and knowing nothing whatsoever about betting, he applied, was successful in the interview and within two weeks was enrolled in their 16 week training course.

Practical experience was gained in their George Street, Luton shop, a busy outlet with 900 slips midweek and 1600-plus on Saturdays, run by a highly capable manager who taught him how to present a shop and provide exemplary customer service.

He was then given a small but challenging shop off the Kilburn High Road. When he turned up on the first day the manager let slip that he’d been held up and robbed at gunpoint the Friday before.

Thankfully his time there went incident free, partly due to its Polish cashier name Steve.

“Without him there to control the unruly punters I’d I have been mincemeat,” Angelo reflects. “He was hard and the punters knew he wouldn’t put up with any rubbish.

“From day one I followed the example set by my training manager at the Luton shop, of getting in early and setting the shop up, settling the evening bets, putting up the papers and completing the board display. Then it was about interacting with the customers, building a rapport, creating a friendly atmosphere and in turn gaining their loyalty.”

During his five years with Ladbrokes he ran a number of shops in North London and Hertfordshire. “They used me where they had a failing shop, to go and improve it. It was all to do with the customer service, presenting the shop and doing the best you could with it; looking after it, cleanliness, common sense really.”

In February 1987 he joined SIS as a text room supervisor, three months before its launch.

“To be part of something that was so new and revolutionary gave you a real buzz and each day you looked forward to getting up to go to work,” he reflects.

“Initially we were only going to do live pictures but because of discrepancy in prices with Extel, SIS launched a clone of the Mecca teletext style text system developed for them in the early ’80s by Jim Davis. Steve Boffo was then one of the operators responsible for managing the content displayed.

“In October 1987 we were at the Bookmakers Show in Bloomsbury. I was representing the text room, overseeing the hardware side. There were salesmen who’d been employed to sell screen systems and live pictures to the bookmakers. They were struggling and I ended up explaining to the bookmakers how they could benefit from the pictures.”

Nigel Payne, the then SIS marketing director, noticed that Angelo was doing a better job than the salesmen specifically employed to sell the service and appointed him as the company’s first text sales person.

“I was under Nigel’s wing and I owe him an awful lot,” Angelo says. “He saw that I had the ability and he gave me the opportunity. It’s really thanks to him that I’m where I am now.”

Later promoted to regional manager for London and the South East, he oversaw the sales and service requirements of some 3,600 betting shops, multiples and independents alike, everything from new installations, dishes, screen and text systems and maintenance calls to problems with local authorities.

He left SIS in 1999 and joined forces with south-east independent Wayne Marler, who at that time had one shop in Romford under the name Chase Bookmakers. Together they grew the chain until by 2003 they had seven shops plus two non-trading licenses in Southend and Slough. As operations director, Angelo was in charge of the day-to-day running of the business.

When the shops and two licenses were sold to Done Brothers in 2003, Angelo and Wayne were offered a consultancy to assist the developing Betfred brand with their expansion plans within the M25. Together they delivered approximately 60 sites in and around the capital.

In 2008, Angelo joined 2DB to head up sales and marketing for its rapidly expanding business. He’d already had dealings with its founders Jim Davis and Steve Boffo from his time at SIS and also with Chase Bookmakers who were at one time looking at having an internet site.

At the time 2DB’s staff were spread far and wide working from home, which brought with it a number of difficulties, but since the end of 2010 the company has been ensconced in a modern industrial estate HQ on the outskirts of Potters Bar, a property which Angelo had identified as being a suitable location.

“At first we thought it was too big and we’d sublet some out but we’ve filled it within four years,” he notes. “In terms of staff, 2DB is a very lean company that uses its resources to the full potential. Everybody gets stuck in, it’s all multi-tasking.”

He has recently been appointed operations director but that role still encompasses the sales and marketing aspects at which he excels.

He admits to being a hands-on and practical person, having taught himself car maintenance, DIY and even rewired his own house. He can build and test all products sold and help out on support issues. He also built the 2DB showroom and mounted and wired the TVs displayed on the wall.

His 30-year marriage to Danielle has produced three daughters, Hannah, 26, Chloe, 23 and Jessica, 21, of whom he is justifiably proud. Hannah is PA to the group business development director at Bell Pottinger, having been headhunted for the position; Chloe is the top stylist in the group of hairdressing salons for which she works; and Jessica is currently in the third year of a four-year business studies course at Brunel University and has recently started an internship at IBM.

All that leaves little time for hobbies other than fair weather cycling plus regular visits to the gym in a concerted effort “to reverse ageing process”.

He heads back to Italy regularly for short visits – he has 36 first cousins there – to their family house, built on land which his father had bought off his father in exchange for a cow as a payment.

And the oak tree his father cut down to make charcoal to fund his train fare to England: the stump is still there. A permanent reminder, no doubt, of his childhood tending sheep in that remote Italian mountain village.

And maybe also a salient reminder of the adage that mighty oaks from little acorns grow.