Beyond the Biz | Mark Blandford

13 February 2009
Well-known in industry circles as one of gaming’s genuine enthusiasts and innovators, Mark Blandford, founder of European sportsbook Sportingbet and director of Valhalla Investments, knows his stuff, especially when it comes to gaming markets.

Last month, he gave Sue Schneider, Clarion Gaming’s instigator, an insightful recap of 2008 and a 2009 forecast. At BetMarkets in March, Mr. Blandford will speak about industry consolidation -- something that could very well become a reality if markets don’t improve. He’ll delve into current and future trading conditions as well as discuss ways businesses can prepare to weather the current financial storm.

However, when IGamingNews caught up with Mr. Blandford on the same day President Barack Obama took the oath of office, we kept the conversation light and, per usual, a bit off topic.

At a young age, what career path did you see yourself taking?

    I tried to leave school at 16 and go and work in a Middle Eastern bank's office. However, they had the good sense not to employ me.

Was it because you were too young?

    I think I was swayed by central London salaries, which are higher than the rest of the U.K., so that looked fairly attractive. But I think they probably worked out that a 16-year-old who didn't know much about banking moving away from home . . . perhaps I hadn't quite thought it all through.

What did you wind up doing?

    I did a year of training to be a chartered accountant. Then I took a business studies course specializing in marketing, and I went to work in marketing. First of all in industrial marketing, and secondly, I worked in food marketing.

How did you start your bookmaking career?

    I'd always had an interest, to be honest. It's a bit of a story. I went to a school that I was supposed to attend on a Saturday morning, and I learned that if I sort of pretended to be interested in horse racing, my father would take me to the races with him, and I didn't have to go to school. And while I was there, I saw the bookmakers working on the track, and that's how I got interested.

When was the first time you used a computer? What were some of your first thoughts?

    I can't get this to work (Laughs).

    The first time I tried to use a computer, I was 33 or 34 years of age. And it was a complete failure because I had no knowledge -- absolutely none. There was no operating system installed on the computer. It was just an absolutely raw, new machine. So, I gave up disillusioned (Laughs).

    However, if I am allowed to twist your question around to be when I first used the Internet, I quickly caught on that it was a distribution channel working in Internet gambling. It was very much like a light bulb going on.

Can you recall the first time you gambled or played poker?

    I can certainly remember the first time I gambled (Laughs). Where is this going? Don't ask me how old I was.

I won't. I promise.

    There is one thing that is on the record, actually. I nearly got expelled for taking bets at school. I was taking bets on soccer matches.

    I don't actually remember the first time I played poker. I remember the first time I played live poker. I found it a very daunting experience. It was at a place that is quite famous in London called the Gutshot Club. From my office to my flat I had to walk past this place, so I figured out that considering the growth of the game online, I ought to go and check out the real-live experience. It was very daunting because I couldn't handle a pack of cards.

If you could interview someone from the gambling industry, who would it be?

    Andrew Black from Betfair. He is someone who genuinely understands the industry from the operational point of view and the consumer point of view. I'd want to talk strategy with him on trading systems, and I'd kind of have my consumer hat on as well to some degree.

What's your take on Web 2.0 sites like MySpace and Facebook? Would sites like those be anything you'd ever invest in?

    I think that some of those businesses, at the risk of saying something controversial here, I think some of those businesses have a limited lifespan in the sense that they could be regarded as a fad or a fashion, and they don't add real value to people's lives. Some of them. I'm not going to name names. I'll leave it there.

    So it kind of answers the other question -- not in that kind of site. However, there are other aspects of Web 2.0 that I think are very much with us to stay.

When you’re not making investments or investigating emerging markets, how do you occupy your time?

    I love to go and watch my local soccer team Hereford United. I love to play poker. And I enjoy spending time with my family, which is a bit harder to organize these days because I have two daughters, and they’re both away at university.

What is the last thing you Googled?

    Oh blimey. It was last night. Hang on, I'm reaching for my computer, if I'm allowed to do that (Laughs). I'm not telling you . . . O.K., it was a Web site related to my local soccer team.

What's the most memorable flight you've taken?

I bet you were happy to be on that one.

    I was. And I've never been back, and I'm not coming back with all due respect (Laughs).

What's the most exciting product that you've seen outside of the gambling industry?

    It is . . . first of all I am going to have to declare an interest. I'm an investor in the company that has developed a product using DNA technology to tag criminals at a crime scene. For example, if a burglar breaks into a premises and gets sprayed with this product, the police can pick them up later and know they were there without any doubt. We use a yeast-based DNA in the spray that is put on them, and yeast DNA, like human DNA . . . virtually every one is unique. So, police can check back to the canister to the batch number that was used to spray. And if they've got it on them, basically they were there.

It's kind of like traceable mace?

    Yes. It's really increasing convictions. Police love it. It has a bigger deterrent value. The company that makes it is called RedWeb Security. It's a small U.K. company, and we only just started marketing the product because we had to go through a whole lot of clearance with it, and get it authenticated for the evidential chain by the police and court systems. But we're through it all, and it works. And more and more police forces in the U.K. are starting to buy it, and more and more retailers are starting to buy it.

What is your favorite television show?

    I love watching a whole range of live sport, but that's a fairly boring answer. I'll give you an English show called “Coronation Street.” It's a soap opera set in a northern industrial town about the lives of people in the inner street, and they have some great characters. And it's not all completely serious stuff. Some of them have a good, humorous angle to them.

What show would most likely change the channel -- or turn off the television completely?

    I am not big into children's television (Laughs). That doesn't do much for me. I think there is an awful lot of poor daytime television -- very cheap productions and no real value in the content.

If you had to throw away one gadget, what would it be?

    Good question. Now if I had to throw away one gadget . . . I could throw away the remote control of the TV because I have old TVs where you can still turn the channel by hand. So, life would go on, whereas life would not go on without my BlackBerry.

From previous correspondence, I've learned that you quite enjoy red wine. What's the best pairing of wine and food you've found?

    When I used to visit Costa Rica, they had some great Latino restaurants. I'm thinking of one place in particular that was an Argentinean steakhouse. So, they had the most fantastic Argentinean steaks, and I used to drink that with the local Argentinean Malbec.

I've had Argentinean Malbec before. It's very good.

    It's fantastic. It's very underrated in the wine world, in my humble opinion.

What's your take on the U.S.'s new president? Do you think it will have any significance for the industry?

    Oh, wow. How long do you want me to go on? (Laughs) I think it has significance for the world, the industry -- for everything. It is hard to get any visibility as to what his position is on gambling. He is reportedly a poker player. I think he's got so much on his plate from the legacy of the previous administration. I don't think gambling is going to be anywhere near on his radar screen. I think he has substantiation economic issues to deal with. And that's going to run on for a while. It's starting to feel like a mini-depression rather than a recession. He has the legacy of effectively still running two wars on a different continent. I know they say they are over, but they don't feel like they are over.

    He's got a lot of stuff left in the system from Guantánamo Bay to locking up businessmen like David Carruthers without trial. And I think everyone has their own vested interest in life, and they all want him to turn around and solve their problems. I don't think he's going to be able to do it -- I think he has some huge issues to deal with first. Shall I stop there? (Laughs)

Jeanette Kozlowski is a staff writer for IGamingNews and manager of Clarion Gaming's Gaming Industry Media portal. She lives in Kirkwood, Mo.