In the first of a two part feature Chris Pitt talks with Dominic Ford, founder of Roar! Betting
As CEO of London bookmakers Roar! Betting, vice chairman of the ABB Council and, since January this year, chairman of BAGS, Dominic Ford has plenty to occupy his time.
High on the agenda of current items is the fifth BAGS/SIS Track Championship, greyhound racing’s only team event, which got under way on September 12.
It’s the biggest yet, with 20 teams – including three new BAGS tracks, Towcester, Doncaster and Wimbledon – competing for the coveted crown, and boasts its biggest prize money pool. The winning team will scoop £15,000, to be split between winning trainers and the track. Runners up collect £10,000 and the team finishing third £7,500.
The Grand Finals, to be held on December 23, will again be televised live on Sky Sports. Viewing figures last year peaked at 120,000, attracting more viewers than the Greyhound Derby itself.
Says Dominic: “We’re delighted to underwrite the Track Championship again. We’ve listened to all the stakeholders, resulting in the highest ever entry level of 20 tracks in a more condensed qualifying race programme, with a 50 per cent increase in prize-money of £300 per race.”
Hailing from a military background – his father was in the Cheshire Regiment – Dominic, 48, grew up in various locations before earning a place at the University of East Anglia, graduating in 1989. A Chartered Accountant, he established the London chain Roar! Betting in October 2006.
Prior to founding Roar he’d spent five years as Group Finance Director for Coral. Before that he’d been employed in a similar role at Conran Restaurants.
The Conran style, along with lessons learned from Sir Terence Conran himself, was influential from the outset when launching Roar.
“The opportunity to give the customer a higher level of service and be able to challenge the established brands,” is Dominic’s response to the question of why he chose to leave Coral and branch out on his own.
“Standards of customer service in the London restaurant business were revolutionised by Terrence Conran. I wanted to apply those same service standards to the betting industry and become a real challenger to the industry heavyweights.
“I felt that being closer to the operation, as you would be with your own business, you’d be able to instil that level of service, firstly across a single shop and then as we grew more shops. That was very much the vision, as a service-led opportunity. The betting industry had grown up over the last 50 years and hadn’t always been open to higher standards and higher levels of innovation.
“I’m a modern leisure/retailer; that’s my background.”
So why the name ‘Roar!’?
“It was to sum up that ethos of a community-based, customer-focused business,” he replies. “The ‘Roar!’ was the roar within the shop, roaring on their selection, roaring on their friend’s selection. It was about trying to zone in on that community feel, that club-able feel.
“It was also a nod towards racing’s heritage – the Cheltenham roar of anticipation, encapsulating the adrenaline charge of having a bet and winning.
“All the other brands were centred around someone’s family name, harking back to the old days of ‘my word is my bond’ and people wanting to have a name they could trust. We’ve gone beyond that in the 21st century so I was looking for a more modern name. I think the element of trust was already there; the bond between the betting public and the bookmaking office, that trust was already established.”
Another legacy of the Conran years was the desire to recruit experienced staff, people with the knowledge and ability to make informed decisions, such as whether or not to lay a bet without the need to phone head office for guidance.
“I felt we were in a position of strength in that we were able to cherry pick experienced staff who were able to deliver,” he says. “We were looking for that individual to be the local bookmaker on the high street, the face and the personality of the shop. It’s a modern, innovation-led experience but also seasoned with a bit of old fashioned, mature customer service.”
Conscious of the need to project a modern image, Roar were among the first to install plasma screens in their front windows.
“We wanted to embrace what new betting opportunities were out there,” explains Dominic. “We hadn’t got the big brand heritage that our competitors had. The hardest thing is getting someone across the threshold for the first time. Once we’d done that, we were able to offer a higher in-shop service level. The larger corporates couldn’t achieve the same level of quality control across 1,000 shops that we were able to provide across seven shops.
“What we were trying to do was make the windows more inviting, and that has been successful. We tried a number of companies but now we use TV & Video Direct technology, which we think is the best.
Roar were also pioneers of self-service betting terminals, having rolled them out across their whole estate in 2010, becoming the first bookmaker to provide SSBTs in all their shops while the major firms were still dipping their toes in the water.
Having built up the chain to ten shops, Roar! Betting then became victims of their own success, due to a decision taken by the shareholders to take a profit and run when prospective buyers came knocking at the door.
“It was very simple,” reflects Dominic. “We had investor shareholders in the business. They made a number of investments pre-crunch and their investment in Roar held quite a lot of value. They were able to get their money out most tax efficiently by calling in their loan notes, thus putting the company into administration and getting them paid as preferential creditor.
“They were highly-skilled operators and they acted in the best interests of their investment. We intended to carry on, they wanted to carry off, and they were able to get a very good return on their investment through selling the shops.”
Paddy Power bought five shops, Ladbrokes bought two, one was closed. The Roar! Betting management bought the other two, continued with the trading name and gradually rebuilt the chain. It now comprises seven shops: Edgware Road, Hounslow West, Colindale, Isleworth, Hove, Tonbridge and Hersham.
With so much uncertainty within the industry, there are no plans at present to expand beyond their existing estate.
However, Dominic has continued to expand his own personal horizons, within both the ABB and BAGS. The second part of this feature will focus on his roles within those organisations.