It’s amazing to think that a year has already passed since I walked out of my office at Betfair for the last time, but it has. On 30th June 2010, at 7.30, I took my photos off the wall, having waited til everyone had left the office so as not to be seen walking out with boxes, and shut the door behind me, without saying a word to anyone on the way out. It was a sad way to end a decade.
The following morning, I put an e-mail out to my entire address book as I headed for a charity cricket match at the Bank of England Sports Club in Roehampton. It was about 8am, and it just said that I had left.
Ralph Topping was the first on the phone, at about 8.10am. “I don’t know what’s happened here,” came his Scottish drawl down the line, “but I’ve been around long enough to know it must be something.” I laughed, without otherwise responding. “Whatever it is,” he went on, “I wanted to give you a call to say that although we’ve been on either side of a big divide, it’s been an intellectual challenge sparring with you, and so it’s been a pleasure. I think you’ve been first class, and I want to wish you all the best in whatever comes next.”
There followed over the next 48 hours an extraordinary number of contacts from people outside Betfair – exactly 500 in total, it would turn out, either by e-mail or telephone – from people wishing me well, which I have to say was very touching. The principal disappointments were that I had no contact from anyone on the Betfair Board other than a single line e-mail from a more recent member kindly saying it had been ‘nice to get to know me a bit’; and that my invite to the ten-year anniversary party which took place less than a week later, organised by my team, was withdrawn on the grounds that I was no longer a member of staff – a criteria which I felt, in the circumstances, might have been relaxed. But on the whole, the reaction to my leaving was a great boost at a very sad time personally, even from people in Australia who had made Ralph’s opposition to my cause look like he was the biggest supporter of the position I had played for a decade, who sent me charmingly flattering notes wishing me luck.
Under the terms of my departure, the line was that I had had enough after ten years, and had decided to do something else. No-one who knew me well accepted that at the time, and when it was announced a couple of months later that the company was to float, people found it hard to believe that I would wait for ten years for something to happen, and then leave four months before it did. The apparent suddenness of my departure led to a number of people speculating that I had done something terrible and been caught out, and to this day, people ask me what happened. In fact, the answer is, perhaps disappointingly, not very juicy: it was nothing in particular, and everything, at the same time. Unfortunately, the reality was that it was always going to end that way, as I had predicted myself five years earlier, from the moment that I agreed against my better judgment that I should stay at the company when I came back from Australia in late 2005. As I said to Betfair’s Chief Executive, David Yu, I felt like a man who had written a film script five years earlier and was now watching the finished product being played before my eyes.
Just before I left Sydney I had had a lengthy conversation with Ed (Wray) on the phone in which I told him that I didn’t know what role I was genuinely returning to. I had played the part of Betfair’s ‘Public Face’ for almost four of the last five years (my contribution to the company in the first 18 months was virtually zero: I was doing business development and there were very few deals we could do, and no-one was really interested in us publicly for some time), but now, I argued, that front role would need to be done by the CEO.
At the time, we were considering an IPO under Stephen Hill, but when that notion was knocked on the head at a Board meeting in autumn 2005, my case became, in my view, even stronger. That evening, in the bar of the RAC in Pall Mall, I commented to David Yu, who was CTO at the time, that if he hadn’t realised what was about to happen, he needed to wake up, because I felt the writing was on the wall very obviously: Stephen would be leaving imminently, and David was going to be asked to take over; so he needed to consider in advance what he was going to say. I remember the shock on his face!
David’s appointment in January saw me talk to him once again: what on earth could my role really be? He had to be the front man, I said; but he argued back, as Ed had, that the role I had left to play was crucial – arguably, Ed had said, “the most crucial in the company”: the most important thing facing Betfair in the coming years was how we were viewed publicly, particularly in light of the regulatory situation, and no-one else was qualified to argue our case. David dismissed out of hand the idea that I could not continue to be the company’s public face, and always supported me fully, both publicly and privately, in that regard. When I said I did not want to find myself being pigeon-holed into a regulatory box (not least because it was an area I had known nothing about three years earlier, in contrast with both media and finance, which had formed big parts of my previous careers), he said I need not worry: he wanted me to play the role I had always played.
There is no doubt he meant it sincerely: he is a man of high integrity. But something was always going to break, and you didn’t need to be a genius to see it coming. Forget suggestions of my frustrations with the company: I am sure everyone has those. True, as part of the Founder team, I was more emotionally involved; I have strong views; and I have a very clear view regarding the importance of clarity of reporting and accountability. But none of that was crucial enough to make a difference. The issue was that my role could only work while the company remained private; never if it did, in the end, go public. That was the company structure as we entered 2010, as flotation started to become likely. And in the end, it all unravelled rather quickly.
In January, with a decision having been taken that the float would come either in June or in October, it was still being mooted that I would form part of the roadshow team to sell the business – never a realistic notion, if truth be told; but still being mooted, nonetheless. By April, that was a million miles away – principally as a result of a meeting between the advisory banks and the Board, the details of which I do not know first hand, but which I heard from someone in the room within moments of it breaking up. I was given a friendly heads-up that my role was about to change dramatically, so that the conversation wouldn’t come as too much of a shock.
The problem I had was best illustrated by an article by Rob Lea, now of the Times but then at the Evening Standard, when he came to ask me background questions about what our customers did in late 2009. Thankfully, a PR consultant sat with me through the whole meeting and was able to confirm that it had not been the exercise in self-aggrandisement that some suspected, but the end product was not helpful either way. I have joked with Rob since about the part he played in my downfall: he said it was because he found the topic so interesting that he ended up writing a full-page article which included a (very out-of-date but rather large) photo of me under the slightly absurd and certainly misleading journalistic-shorthand sub-headline saying what “the Betfair boss” thinks.
Thus it was that in April, David asked me to stop talking to the media, or doing anything that would take me into the public domain. I understood perfectly how and why the legacy of my role was becoming a problem, and told David so. I said I would support him in getting the best IPO result we could. It was, after all, in my financial interests more than it was in anyone’s on the management team, given my longevity of service and the fact that I had been there on Day One. Come June, I said, we could have a conversation which recognised the fact that my job had just been cut in half, but that was a conversation for another day. The important thing was to get the float done, and (at the time) we had three months to get it right.
The problem now, though, was that it was difficult, if not impossible, for me to do the other part of my job – holding the company’s position on its regulatory battles. I think that can only be done effectively by combining government and media relations – a business principle to which I adhere so strongly that I have now set up a company advising on that very basis – but now I could not only do nothing in the public domain, but also had to stop giving background briefings. The biggest issue of all, though, was that no-one else was told that the change was happening at all – let alone told the reasons why.
So, suddenly, people in the media with whom I had built up relationships over many years found me telling them not only that I couldn’t answer their questions, and that I was no longer in a position to chat and would have to put them on to someone else – a position which led inevitably to the unanswerable query ‘well what are you doing, then?’, and, unhelpfully, to a small newspaper snippet under the headline, ‘Betfair director gagged’. Meanwhile people in the world of regulation wondered why we had suddenly stopped fighting our corner, and whether we were in some way conceding some of the points we had long fought over so hard. It was a frustrating time, not least because I felt that we were losing significant ground on some of our arguments because we were – of necessity or otherwise, depending on your point of view – adopting a strategy of no longer responding to big public attacks on us.
Soon, I was also asked to stop blogging, on the grounds that it wasn’t clear if I was expressing my own opinion or Betfair’s. The pity, for me, was that I felt it must be clear to everyone that Betfair’s opinion and my opinion had to be in line in public, simply by virtue of my position on the management team. Indeed, the blog started merely as a tool for getting Betfair’s message across, and the irony is that the straw that broke the camel’s back – my blog about our pulling out of France – put out the position we were adopting, without adding that it was one with which I disagreed. [I felt, and had argued internally, that we had to apply for a licence just to prove that we could under the letter of the law, even if it cost us money: conceding the point that it is possible to ban exchanges while allowing fixed odds (a legal argument I maintain to this day is impossible) would in my view allow people to believe, erroneously, that Europe was closing in, and prove calamitous in the longer term.]
But there was nothing to be done: we had a legacy problem which it was difficult to overcome. I admit that life grew miserable: I was advised externally not to say anything unless spoken to; and sadly, no-one who knew what was happening spoke to me in turn. To be honest, I think that it was simply a case that none of my senior colleagues in the surrounding offices knew what on earth to say. Eventually, in mid-June, David said he thought we needed to talk; and ten days later, I was gone.
I was locked up for a year, because some people were very concerned about what I would have to say after I left. It was an understandable corporate position, but in fact the answer is nothing they need have been afraid of. As regards my departure, yes, it was a sad end; but these things happen. I certainly wouldn’t have gone out of choice: the ten years were fun, and I think I gave the company a different perspective which, at times over the years, helped. As regards strategy, messaging, and internal structure: yes, I have some minor disagreements – but then, I always did. Admittedly, from a personal perspective, life was less frustrating (all things being relative) to be able to influence a little from the inside than to watch entirely powerless from the outside, but there you go.
Of course, it is true that a year on from my departure, David has announced that he is off, too. Someone sent me a note last week asking how I am with schadenfreude, but in fact that is way wide of the mark. David – who I always called David Yu-da-man – is a nice guy, and he took no pleasure, I think, in my going: he was always very positive to me about the role I played, and his charming wife made a point of telling me, at the only occasion I have seen either since (at Stephen Morana’s wedding, six weeks after I left), how sad they both were that things should have ended as they did. But as I hope I make clear above, shit happens: I had a role which didn’t fit where we were. And I can put on record in turn my view that in his six years as Betfair CEO, David worked exceptionally hard, and there had been no-one more committed to the company’s cause. I wish him nothing but success in whatever he does next.
As regards the company as a whole: I hope it regains its position as the undisputed leader of the gambling pack, and that people both internally and externally re-discover the love for it that for various reasons many seem to have lost. Personally, I don’t see why both can’t be achieved fairly easily; but my reasons for thinking that are perhaps better left, after such a lengthy post, for another day.