Bengtsson accelerates international spread for William Hill

William Hill CEO Ulrik Bengtsson told investors to expect a “relentless focus on customer and product” from the bookmaker under his guidance, as he sets about accelerating the firm’s international diversification to counter regulatory pressure.

William Hill’s adjusted operating profit fell 37% to £147m in 2019, ahead of the management guidance of £143m. However, the bookmaker still posted a statutory loss before tax of £37.6m, down from £721.9m in 2018 but only after taking a massive impairment charge to prepare for the regulatory changes in the UK’s retail scene.

The firm’s UK online business also absorbed the increase in the Remote Gaming Duty, which came in to offset the stake reduction for fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). This hit profitability by c£13m, something that Bengtsson believes reinforces the importance of its drive to diversify the business geographically.

Bengtsson revealed the early signs of this initiative by highlighting that 35% of online revenues, up from 24% in 2018, were delivered from outside of the UK across 2019. This equated to £257.3m of the total £738.3m in online revenue for the Group. By comparison, just £150.4m came from outside of the UK in 2018.

Meanwhile, online revenues in the UK suffered a slight drop from $484.0m to $481.0m as William Hill maintained market share by recording three consecutive quarters of growth.

Another nod to this international diversification came through the acquisition of Mr Green in January 2019, so far performing in line with expectations, which Bengtsson said has given William Hill an “established hub with the relevant teams and capabilities from which to grow its international business”.

He confirmed that the integration has enabled the bookmaker to operate from two distinct hubs, with Gibraltar now focusing on all UK operations while all international operations are conducted from Malta. 

Boosted by the addition of Mr Green, Bengtsson said he expects William Hill’s international online performance, assuming a steady regulatory landscape, to continue at high single-digit growth. Active users grew 2% in 2019, while average revenue per user (ARPU) fell 4% as the company pursued a traditional growth strategy.

This is in contrast to the UK market, where William Hill has redirected marketing activity to deliver return on investment with a focus on yield rather than volumes. It is for this reason, said Bengtsson, that unique active users decreased by 14% but ARPU increased by 13%.

The new CEO was joined on the investor call by outgoing CFO Ruth Prior, who explained that retail performance came in ahead of expectations despite the obvious FOBT fallout, which forced William Hill to close 713 shops in the third quarter.

Prior admitted that the new limit on the B2 gaming products meant that putting together 2019 budgets had been the “hardest of her career” because there was “no historic precedent of how consumers would behave”.

She added that retail operators are “adjusting to new normal in player behaviour”, but that true like-for-like (LFL) comparisons with the post FOBT period for will have to wait until the bookie has lapped the dates for both the new stake limit and the associated shop closures.

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