John O’Reilly has been dealt something of a tricky hand since becoming chief executive of Grosvenor Casino and Mecca Bingo-owner Rank Group in 2018.
As well as the company having had to shut its doors on and off for months on end when the pandemic hit, the gambling industry has been braced for widespread reforms that were delayed for more than two years.
This is partly a result of political and public opinion increasingly turning against the sector following a series of campaigns that have exposed the misery of gambling addiction.
O’Reilly, 63, is acutely aware he works in an industry that many people find immoral.
‘I get the question a lot about whether I’m comfortable doing what I do,’ he says.’And I say look, gambling has always existed and always will.
All in: Chief executive John O’Reilly at the Rialto Casino in Central London
‘Society has a choice of whether you regulate and tax it, putting it in the hands of responsible operators.Or you put it in the hands of the Mob. I think we’ve made the right choice in this country.’
The gambling business is changing rapidly, but O’Reilly insists bingo halls – a feature of the British urban landscape for decades – are still a ‘key part of local communities’.
Around 100,000 people walk through the doors of Mecca bingo halls every week – and about 4,000 of them are newbies, who have never played the game before.
The numbers show that around half of those newcomers are under 34 years of age – putting them in the ‘millennial’ generation and challenging the stereotype that bingo is the preserve of older women.
O’Reilly says the most serious players who want a quiet game come on Mondays and Tuesdays.Later in the week, it becomes more raucous. ‘On Fridays and Saturdays we have bingo hosted by drag queens as well as karaoke nights when the prize is a blow-up crocodile,’ he says.
Even the great British bingo night is not immune from the demands of political correctness.
A number of well-known traditional calls such as ‘legs 11’ and ‘two fat ladies 88’ have ‘not been used for a while now’ as they are deemed outdated, he says.
Bingo was hard-hit by the pandemic and it has also suffered during the cost of living crisis.Clubs have been hit by higher running costs at the same time as grannies and other devotees have been feeling the pinch and cutting back on outings.
‘When I go to a bingo hall, the first question that people ask me is whether I’m going to close it,’ he says.
Of the 72 halls Rank had this time last year, 39 were loss-making and 15 have had to shut their doors.
Life is getting tougher all-round for companies like Rank.The Government’s gambling White Paper, which was published in April, is aimed at protecting customers from addiction and heavy losses amid an explosion of online betting, while not spoiling the fun for the majority who enjoy a flutter.
O’Reilly, sitting in the Rialto Casino just off Piccadilly Circus on an unusually hot London evening, says he is more upbeat than ever over his company’s future.
He says Rank – which earns 70 per cent of its turnover in face-to-face venues including its bingo halls – could gain under the legislative shake-up.
One of the changes involves removing the limit on the number of slot machines that can be located in casinos.
As the rules currently stand, venues like Rialto can only have 20 machines in the whole place – due to a 1960s regulation that aimed to limit the number of people playing at one time.
Under the changes, there will be up to 80 machines per venue – with the numbers based on a sliding scale according to size and demand – but ultimately putting more bums on seats.
‘The industry has not kept up with changing consumer needs,’ says O’Reilly.
Industry regulator the Gambling Commission has also been flexing its muscles in recent months.
Earlier this year it handed high street bookie William Hill its harshest penalty ever – fining it £19million for allowing punters to lose too much money.One customer spent £23,000 in just 20 minutes.
Campaigners have complained that the fines fail to address root issues and suggest that removing licences is the only way to really teach companies a lesson.
O’Reilly says companies have made ‘mistakes’, but he points to the advantages for Rank of owning physical premises.
He claims that having bricks and mortar venues enables operators to track addictive gambling more easily.Rank bans about 600 people a month from its premises for a variety of reasons, including for trying to gamble too much money too quickly.
‘The difference with online gambling is that you have got it [your smartphone] in your pocket and can do it at any time you choose,’ he says.
‘And the one advantage for us is that we have got the customer in front of us.So we can see them. We can see their behaviour.’
O’Reilly’s image of gambling is mostly about having fun, which he attributes to his Irish Catholic upbringing, where he ‘grew up on the racetracks’ with an uncle who trained horses and a father who loved betting – especially on cards.’Gambling is in my blood,’ he says.
This deep-seated connection made his move from teaching business classes at North Staffordshire Polytechnic to the gambling industry a no-brainer.
He spent 19 years at Ladbrokes – beginning in the 1990s – expanding its online betting business before joining Gala Coral Group in 2011 and Rank in 2018.Rank was founded in 1937 by film producer Joseph Arthur Rank and was previously a conglomerate, owning film businesses including Pinewood Studios and Odeon, as well as leisure brands such as Butlins and Haven Holidays.
It eventually sold off much of its sprawling empire and focused on gambling -although it continues to use the traditional Gongman logo which can be seen at the start of many films including the Carry On series.
Today Rank is the only casino operator which is listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Despite O’Reilly’s upbeat outlook, investors do not appear to be totally convinced.
Shares are still 70 per cent lower than they were in 2020 and, unlike many of its gambling peers, it failed to enjoy an uplift during Covid, when there was an explosion in online betting.
However, its stock has surged since the White Paper was published, indicating there is some hope among shareholders that Rank stands to benefit.
As for O’Reilly, he just wants to bring people back through the doors – and have fun doing it.