June 12, 2008

William Hill aims for 50% contribution from online division

William Hill emphasised its renewed focus on online betting and gaming on Tuesday as chief executive Ralph Topping provided an update of the company’s development of its new internet gaming platform, which is set to launch on November 27.

Topping admitted the company had lost its focus in relation to internet gaming over the past two years and would aim to generate up to 50% of group revenues from its online offering once the new platform had been launched.

“William Hill has decided to work with established experts rather than operate the technology ourselves,” Topping said in reference to its current online sports betting platform, which will be replaced by the Orbis sportsbook technology in November.

Topping added that he had been chief executive for nearly three months and while “William Hill was not broken, it needed a new sense of direction”, he said. “William Hill is a betting and gaming company, for too long we have been bookmakers with a bolt-on gaming product range. Gaming now represents 50% of our online revenue and everyone at Hill’s now knows that it is as important as betting,” Topping added.

William Hill currently generates around 20% of its group revenue from online betting and gaming and would aim to increase that to 25% to 30% shortly after it had launched the new platform. Although Topping did not want to make predictions or tie himself down to revenue forecasts, he said the longer term objective of the company was for its online gaming and betting division to provide up to 50% of group revenues.

Topping added that William Hill was an open-minded firm and was now recruiting the best staff it could find in order to grow its remote gaming division. The company has recently increased its marketing effort for its online betting and bingo products and will raise its advertising and promotional spend in the coming months.

“William Hill is known as a conservative company that doesn’t like spending, but we don’t mind spending if we see the benefits from our investment. We will spend more on clever, targeted marketing that is designed to increase profits,” Topping said.

“We were still the biggest online operator only two years ago, but we stopped playing to our strengths, took some wrong decisions and gave up the lead we had acquired. We have been lucky the competition hasn’t taken full advantage of this in the meantime and we are confident our online offerings will provide us with strong growth in the UK and internationally,” he added.

The sportsbook interface will focus on in-running and providing punters with live price and market updates and will have an emphasis on being easy to use and navigate. “Online punters are more demanding and sophisticated (than retail punters), so it’s vital that we make the site easy to use and bet on,” Topping said.

Ian Chuter, director of gaming at William Hill, said the firm’s current poker liquidity was “not big enough to provide massive prize offers” for players and it could not compete with other sites in terms of prize pools. “For William Hill to compete, we will either change or merge with other networks that are facing the same problems as us,” Chuter said. William Hill is on the CryptoLogic network, and Chuter added: “Our supplier contracts are up for renewal at the end of the year and we will look at the situation then. Overall, we plan to make more use of affiliates and will focus on CRM to understand our customer base better. This is nothing revolutionary but we will deliver on these targets and they are achievable.”

Topping said William Hill would look at consolidation and acquisition opportunities if they were of benefit to the company’s shareholders and investors and if the regulatory landscape allowed them, in reference to potential action by the US authorities against operators that were taking bets there prior to the internet gambling ban in 2006.

Dresdner Kleinwort issued a ‘Buy’ note on the back of William Hill’s presentation and said the Orbis platform should provide it with the technology for online growth in the medium term.

“Ralph Topping was clear that William Hill sees online as the major growth driver, both on a national and international scale. The new sportsbook launch is a medium term catalyst, however it is the change in culture at William Hill that we believe will provide incremental gains, with a marked improvement in communication with investors - the previous lack of which has been reflected in William Hill's discount to Ladbrokes,” the note said.

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