Sunday 4 February 2024

The Early Days of Ladbrokes Bookmaker

In 1961 the Betting and Gaming Act saw betting shops appear in the high streets. Before this time the only place a legal cash bet could take place was on course. Bookmakers were allowed telephone clients but this was based on credit. Ladbrokes had this working relationship, not surprisingly, with many punters from the gentry or incredibly wealthy clients. Betting shops allowed punters to place a bet legally. Before, it was was a time of backstreet bookmakers often related to criminals and illegal.

It’s interesting to consider those early years. Reading Ron Pollard’s fascinating book about him working for Ladbrokes as an odds-maker as well as the PR Director these were difficult times. He worked with Ladbrokes from 1962 and remembered how on a number of occasions, in that first decade, they had such liabilities that they were on the verge of bankruptcy. He told of times where they pushed football betting odds to the extreme in what was akin to a price war with William Hill which cost both companies dear. It was madness but that’s how things worked in those formative years. He also detailed how Ladbrokes made a killing by looking for alternative betting mediums such politics and general elections. This proved to be a master move and not only helped gain money but global promotion for the company. One occasions they placed so much hope and money on Labour winning the general election that a loss would have seen the firm the brink of financial disaster. Pollard said he felt so unsettled by the whole situation that he called his mother and said he was contemplating suicide. Thankfully, all was OK.

It is probably too easy to think of giant companies and consider their business history has always followed a straight path and been a bed of roses. In actual fact this is far from the truth. There have been many ups and downs as there will be in the future although it is very unlikely such a company would find itself with serious concern due to diversifying and investing as Ladbrokes did in property, hotels and other businesses across the globe.

I was surprised to read that along the way they invested in managing Aintree to protect the Grand National which was pretty close to disappearing. Also, they purchased Lingfield and many greyhound tracks. They invested in many enterprises which are often forgotten or perhaps viewed less objectively.

It was also interesting to read how Ladbrokes had a brilliant casino business in the 1970s then they encountered problems with The Playboy Club over the acquisition of clients. This was back in the day when rich sheikhs frequented London and literally spent millions in a night. Sadly, the road to riches for both companies fell foul of the law and both casinos lost their licences.

Cyril Stein was one of the movers and shakers in helping create the Ladbrokes we know today and he was a brilliant businessman.

Today Ladbrokes is worth £2.9 billion. It’s a long way from those small beginning when the company was purchased in 1956 for £100,000. Amazingly it was owed £105,000 so in effect the company cost no money to purchase.

Ron Pollards biography is a brilliant read.