Denise Coates says, she and her brother John are “the ultimate gamblers”. Photo / Getty Images
By her own admission, Denise Coates and her brother John are “the ultimate gamblers”.
It was 2001 and the dotcom bubble had recently burst, but Coates decided to place all her chips online.
The Stoke-on-Trent siblings bought the bet365.com domain on eBay for a reported $35,000 (US$25,000) and mortgaged her father Peter’s betting shops to secure a $30m (£15m) loan from Royal Bank of Scotland to develop the website.
“I was convinced early on that gambling would work on the internet,” Coates once said in a rare interview with her local newspaper.
It is something of an irony that Coates, the older of the two siblings, grabs the headlines.
Fiercely private, few people in the gambling industry have met her. If public appearances cannot be avoided, John fronts up to represent the company.
But Wednesday’s eye-watering salary of $828m (£421m ), plus the small matter of $92m (£47m) in dividends, has catapulted Denise Coates to the upper echelons of the world’s best-paid executives.
Whether she likes it or not, paydays of this scale will both attract attention and divide opinion. And while bet365’s tax and charity contributions are widely applauded, speculation persists about how much of the bookmaker’s earnings come from China.
Coates was born in September 1967, the eldest of four children. Peter, her father, left school at 14 and, after a failed attempt to play for his beloved Stoke City Football Club, was shipped off on National Service before returning to take a job at the Wimpy restaurant chain.
Using this experience Peter founded Stadia Catering, a specialist caterer at football grounds. Growing the business allowed him to acquire the chain of betting shops that would be pivotal in his daughter’s success.
Denise combined her education at a Staffordshire comprehensive school with a part-time job as a cashier in her father’s betting shops. She graduated with a first-class degree in econometrics from Sheffield University before returning to the family business in 1995, allowing her father more time to pursue his real passion as chairman of Stoke City.
Coates Jnr was convinced that the internet was perfect for a paradigm change in sports betting. A much broader range of punters could be attracted if they could gamble from home.
Initially working from a small portable cabin, the Coates siblings knew that taking on the multimillion-pound bank loan was a risky move.
“We mortgaged the betting shops and put it all online. We were the ultimate gamblers, if you like,” Denise once said.
The investment allowed Coates to move the business into a small open-plan office. Each family member had their corner, with the IT department behind a glass partition.
Originally a predominantly tele-betting operation, bet365 eventually became an exclusively online business in the decade that followed. Peter’s shops were sold to William Hill in 2005 for $78m (£40m), releasing Denise from her debt to her father.
The siblings had a reputation for being in the detail. “Throughout my time there, they micromanaged everything,” Matthew Glazier, bet365’s head of marketing until 2010, told trade publication EGR.
The Coates siblings thought nothing of working through the weekend, every weekend, according to former employees.
Glazier added: “Everything went through them and every major decision required their approval. Denise was working around the clock on the betslip functionality, the new site, or the tech side of things … nothing major was ever really delegated.
“Much changed in the years that followed. Denise has juggled being one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs with having five children. Bet365 is one of Stoke’s biggest employees, with more than 5,000 staff. Bet365 continues to resist calls to breakdown where it makes its money on a country-by-country basis. Doing so would be “severely prejudicial to the interests of the group”, it says.
This has led to industry speculation that more than half of its revenue is generated in China, a country which is off-limits in the eyes of some of Britain’s best-known bookmakers and where betting is strictly controlled.
The Stoke company said last year that it was not breaking any laws by operating in China and was not putting any of the country’s citizens at risk. Wednesday’s payday took Denise Coates’ total pay in salary and dividends over the past five years to $2.4b (£1.4b).
Critics argue that she has profited from the devastating impact that gambling addiction can have. Others insisted that the entrepreneur, who risked everything by gambling on an idea, deserves every penny.