Beyond the Biz | Ralph J. Topping

15 December 2008

When someone's been in the bookmaking business as long as Ralph J. Topping, it seems only natural for him to be the chief executive at one of the largest and most prominent betting services out there -- William Hill.

Nearly six months ago, IGamingNews editor Chris Krafcik spoke with Mr. Topping about four months after he settled into the chief executive chair and discovered his thick accent (referring to it as “the hardened dialect of a weathered, well-aged Scotsman”) as well as his ambitious business plans. Last Friday, we checked in with Mr. Topping again to see how life has been for the jolly Scot.

You've been the C.E.O. for a little under a year, how's it going?

    Things are going great -- as good as they can be. What you took for normal changes when the world is falling all around you, and you're scared to switch the television on in case you see some other disaster happening. Business, actually, has been very robust.

What's been your most memorable day thus far?

    Probably when I went to meet my investors for the first time. Or going to Israel to do business and having to deal with the people at the border who have no sense of humor. I don't think they've ever read a Dilbert column in their life, and I don't think they've laughed since they were kids. It was quite a challenge getting through, but that was the most memorable foreign trip.

    The most memorable U.K. experience was meeting the investors for the first time, which, thankfully, I had been running operational businesses for a long period of time by then. I'd like to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was just myself, and I think they quite liked that. I don't pretend to be anything I'm not. So the response we got back, because they mark you on every visit -- it's just like going to school actually -- they tell you their views on you, and they were very, very kind. So, that was enjoyable.

How did you get drawn into the bookmaking industry?

    Oh God, you'll never believe this one. This is quite an interesting one. I was a student at the University in Glasgow, and my parents bought me a car. My father said he would not subsidize me for the running of the car; I would have to find a job. He found me a job with a company in Glasgow called City Tote, which was a London company that opened betting shops in Glasgow. I went into a shop in the south side of Glasgow and worked with all females, which was unusual in the betting industry at that time. I went in there a very shy 18-year-old boy, probably what you would call a country boy. After blushing for the first three months, my shyness disappeared, and I had stand on my two feet with the ladies because they were tormenting me all the time. That was a great experience. The lady who taught me at that time is still working for the organization, so that's tremendous.

Was that your first job ever?

    Can you believe it? I'm such a dull person. I worked for the company, and apart from doing a little big of traveling, I stayed with the company. I'm one of those unusual people nowadays. I've always stayed with the organization and haven't moved. I will not come back to life as an Aborigine. (Laughs.)

What do you think the I-gaming future will be like?

    I think when Americans come in it will be reinvented in lots and lots of ways. I think they will take it to new heights, and it will grow. It will be one of the ways to have a big alternative to the land-based business. It might be challenge to some land-based businesses over there. I think that (legalization in the United States) will happen in the next few years. And a challenge to those Europeans because we feel we are inferior to you Americans.

I somehow doubt that.

    (Laughs.) We will have to smarten up.

When's the last time you gambled, and are you up or down?

    (Laughs.) I had a bet this week on football, or soccer as you call it. And I lost this week. I'm following a pattern: Any week with a Monday in it, I seem to lose. I am not a good gambler. I'm a recreational gambler as they call it. My biggest win was on South Africa to win the Rugby World Cup. I won about £3,000. That's my biggest win, and that was last year.

Looking back, what did you see yourself doing as a child when you "grew up"? How is it different now?

    (Laughs.) I was convinced when I was a child I was going to play football/soccer for Scotland. I thought I was going to lead Scotland out as a captain. I dedicated my early years to follow that concept. It was only when I went to school, and they told me that I was useless that I gave up on that. Then I thought I would go to university and become a teacher or a lawyer -- those were the professions that my parents told me to do. They also told me to never take money from strangers, and I've done that all my life. So, I've been a naughty boy since childhood.

Tell me about your favorite thing to do when you're not working.

    God almighty, you're very personal. (Laughs.) I suppose my favorite thing to do, and you'll not believe this -- I'm a bird watcher. I go bird watching. I go and do some strange things. I go grizzly bear watching in Canada, which is something I like, getting out in the open. I've got grandchildren now, and I go with my grandkids to go watch football and rugby, which is a big sport over here.

What's the last movie you saw in the theater?

    Oh, God almighty! I don't have time to go to the movies -- that's for retirement! (Laughs.) You're talking about work-life balance here. You don't get that when you're a chief executive, I'm afraid.

    No, I'll try remember. Who's that guy with a whip? It wasn't a pseudo masochistic film, it was that guy … oh God … he's unbelievable in the role because he's too old. Harrison Ford. What was it called? C'mon, you're younger than me: What's the name of that movie?

Uh, Indiana Jones.

    That's the one. Indiana Jones -- it was awful. My grandchildren loved it, but it was awful. They came into the movie theater with hats and whips and managed to knock a lady's ice cream all over her. I had to go and get a replacement ice cream for her. So, I remember that movie. Yes. What was the last movie you saw?

I can't remember. It's been a while for me, too.

    (Laughs.) Well, that shows you're a hard worker.

Since you didn't like Indiana Jones, is there a film you would like to recommend to people?

    I like “The Godfather,” which I think is my all-time favorite movie. Godfather one … not the rest that followed. The one and only. The original. I like the bit where the guy got beaten up by the garbage (lid). Sonny took the (lid) and beat the guy up the street for messing his sister around. Gratuitous violence. I like all of that.

Aside from any of William Hill's Web sites, what site do you frequent the most?

    I go to Ladbrokes. They are our deadliest rivals, and I go into their site and give them money every week. It's called my charitable donation. It makes the chief executive happy, and I know him well. I like to keep him in employment.

Out of the C.E.O.s I've spoken with, many seem to own more than one cell phone. How many do you own?

    Ha! One. I'm a Scotsman. Are you joking? How many cell phones do you need?

So, you just have one?

    I have one. Yes, of course, shouldn't everybody? How many cars do you need? One. I'm a green chief executive.

What's your favorite gadget?

    Well, I'm a gadget person. I'm buying gadgets nonstop. My favorite gadget is my iPod. That shocked you, didn't it?

And how many hours of music do you have on it?

    I'm a big blues fan, and I have about 3,000 blues tracks on it. My favorite blues singer is Snooky Prior. I've got all of Snooky Prior's CDs on my iPod. Now nobody's ever heard of Snooky Prior; he's an authentic blues player. He plays the harmonica. My favorite tune of his is a song called “Bluebook,” the live version. And if I had to come back to life again, I would want to come back as a Chicago harpist blues player and live to a very old age. Not make a lot of money but have a lot of fun playing my harp.

What's something that annoys you?

    Something that really annoys me? People who are on a train who have two cell phones and keep using both of them -- they're usually chief executives.

Is there something about your life that you'd change?

    Yes, probably. If I could change anything about my life, I would probably ask for any good years to be relivable and any bad years to be wiped from my memory. It's always nice having a good year in life, isn't it? I have a nice family … I have three daughters. One thing I'd change is my middle daughter. She's getting married next year, but I would love for her to elope. It would save me a lot of money. So, if you can arrange that, I would take a subscription out to any of your publications.

I'd need her phone number first. Speaking of money, what do you think about the financial climate currently?

    Listen, when you get to be as old as me, you've lived through a few. This is probably the worst I've ever experienced. I never thought I'd see things like Lehman's going down -- never believed that was possible. Never thought I'd see Gordon Brown, who I thought was one of the meanest men to ever walk God's Earth, throwing money around as if money was going out of fashion.

    Times are crazy, but for a lot of people, it's really difficult. Over in your country, you never thought the day where you'd see car manufacturers going to Washington and begging for money and not getting it. And financial institutions, which were falling apart, get the money. Never thought I'd see that actually. It's crazy. I think there's a lot more to come next year.

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