Caroline AckroydDirector of commercial finance, Sky Bet

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Sky Bet director of commercial finance Caroline Ackroyd FCCA says her training stands her in good stead to oversee the business of responsible gambling

Sky Betting and Gaming – branded Sky Bet – has just run at full gallop into one of the biggest corporate deals of 2018. In a move that could be worth up to £3.4bn, the Leeds-based business has been sold to Canada’s Stars Group, which owns online card room PokerStars, creating the world’s largest publicly listed online gaming company.

At the heart of Sky Bet’s winning streak is its director of commercial finance Caroline Ackroyd FCCA. A winner herself (she was named Best FD in the £50m-plus private equity company category in the Yorkshire-based Finance Director Awards in 2016, and won the One to Watch Award in the Northern Finance Director Awards in 2017), she is comfortable with the hectic pace of growth and change at Sky Bet, clearly enjoying being a key member of a team that has turned digital betting and gaming into a sure-fire money-spinner.

Speaking to AB just as the Stars deal went through, Ackroyd says: ‘It will mean being part of an international gaming business, which will bring with it exciting new opportunities, not least the ability to offer our best-in-class products to a global audience. This would have been more challenging with little or no presence internationally; we would have needed to build those businesses from scratch.

‘Bringing these high-growth companies together will create opportunities for our teams to work globally. And the commitment to keep Yorkshire as the major hub for the enlarged group is great news for the local area.’

She focuses on strategic corporate special projects. ‘I guess I don’t have a traditional finance role,’ she says. ‘It is a finance/operations hybrid.’

For instance, it was her job to investigate whether to expand the business location outside of the UK – the decision was a no. Since then she has led on efficiency reviews, three-year planning exercises, and building the budgets and operational workstreams and processes for setting up the German operation. She also spent six months of 2017 with the Italian business, looking at how it was working with the Sky brand, restructuring operations and giving insights from the UK perspective of high growth.

It has all taken place against a background of remarkable financial success. Sky Bet’s sale to private equity fund CVC Capital Partners at the end of 2014 for £800m was a significant moment, and Ackroyd worked on corporate readiness. She explains: ‘We were part of a big organisation and they did the tax and treasury work for us. So when we split, we had to build those functions, recruiting about 30 people for different roles.’

Of late, the essence of her role has been forward-looking, ensuring the company is in the best shape for, as it turned out, the Stars deal, although plenty of smart money had been placed on a stock-market listing.

Responsible gambling

As well as getting the business sale-ready, Ackroyd has been involved in bringing together all the initiatives of responsible gambling across the organisation as a unified programme. ‘We as an organisation have to work together because responsible gambling touches so many areas,’ she says.

The Gambling Commission is asking betting companies to use their data to identify those customers at risk of harm to themselves because their gambling could be getting out of control. ‘The industry’s stance used to be that we will provide customers with tools – cooling-off periods, exclusions and deposit limits – and they can manage their spend themselves, but now we’re moving to a place where we can’t ignore what we see in the data,’ Ackroyd says.

Sky Bet is building predictive models and calling at-risk customers to discuss what the data is showing. ‘We will put a block on the account, which forces them to take notice of us,’ Ackroyd explains. The next step will be to build tools to nudge people with messages about, perhaps, the number of bets they have placed in a day, or their total spend compared with other periods. ‘That may resonate to change behaviour before customers get to extremes,’ she adds. Much of the work on ethical gambling is on an industry-wide basis.

Sky Bet has a long-term strategic focus on safer gambling. ‘We want customers to spend within their own boundaries and means,’ Ackroyd explains. ‘We don’t want them chasing losses. We’ve had success stories where we’ve intervened to stop people moving to that behaviour.’

Her ACCA background inevitably informs her views. ‘If you are a professional, you should be thinking about ethics and social responsibility,’ she says. ‘With ACCA you learn that very early.’

Expansion

Becoming big fast can be a challenge, but Ackroyd says Sky Bet has managed to retain its culture, partly through encouraging staff to talk to each other about what is going on.

She says the company is data-rich: key performance indicators focus on net revenue (gross revenue less any winning bonuses paid), net revenue by product, customer numbers (including value of stake, and number of bets and betting days), and EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation).

Up until the Stars acquisition the business had been UK-centric, but the recent establishment of a German operation and the revamp of the business in Italy suggest that overseas expansion is now a serious bet. It isn’t easy, though. ‘They are tough markets in which to get going because of established competition,’ Ackroyd points out. Competitors back in the UK are the big bookies such as William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and Paddy Power, but she says Sky Bet is top in terms of number of customers.

Breadth of opportunity

Reflecting on her career to date, Ackroyd says: ‘I have always enjoyed being a member of the wider team with commercial influence and involvement in decision-making. The roles have given a breadth of opportunity, and the ACCA Qualification – with modules such as performance management – underlines how we are not traditional finance people. Finance people are part of the tribe; we’re not sat in a separate finance function.’

The elevated level of integration links to her views on leadership. ‘As a leader you have to be trusted and honest,’ she says. ‘As well as working with teams and individuals, leaders provide autonomy – they let people get on with the job and make their own mistakes. We want to feel part of something, to feel motivated and to have purpose.

‘Leadership is about personal development, allowing people to move on in their careers. Recently I have had two direct reports, and both of them have moved on to head of finance roles. It is about recognising quickly when people are ready for those types of move.’

While Ackroyd is not a regular Sky Bet customer – ‘If I did win, it would be like taking money out of my own pocket,’ she jokes – but she will bet on football when socialising with fellow directors. ‘My boss is an Aberdeen fan, so I may have a bet on their game.’ Her real passion, though, is the horses. She picked the winner and the runner-up in this year’s Grand National. With that kind of form, it is no wonder she is so suited to helping Sky Bet – and its new owner, Stars Group – to carry on clearing the business hurdles.

Peter Williams, journalist

This article was first published in the June 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

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