Leeds proves a safe bet
Sky Betting & Gaming has become somewhat of a glistening jewel in Yorkshire’s tech crown over recent years and it is clear to see why.
Originally launching in Harrogate back in 1999, the company has since grown to employ over 1,200 people from its HQ in Leeds and offices in Sheffield, London, Rome and Munich and has bold ambitions to become the ‘UK's leading digital employer'.
BQ caught up with chief executive Richard Flint to hear more about how the company came about, why it has continued to invest in Leeds and why Yorkshire is fast becoming a hotbed for innovative tech businesses…
What attracted Sky Betting & Gaming to Leeds?
Sky Betting & Gaming was born in Harrogate, but a rent hike and demand for new space necessitated a move and Leeds had suitable premises with a capacity that we thought would suffice for the next five years. We actually out-grew our original premises at 2 Wellington Place in just three years and invested a further £3.5m in a new technology hub at number 6 Wellington Place in 2016.
We required access to a rich talent pool and high quality premises to allow us to realise on-going, fast-paced growth. Leeds had both of these. Wellington Place is also a thriving centre for tech companies and our people like it here because of the independent shops, restaurants, gyms and being just 10 minutes’ walk from the station.
When did the company officially start trading and how has it grown since?
In the autumn of 1999, a dozen key William Hill employees left their jobs to set up online bookmaker Surrey Sports in Harrogate, which was owned by the Sports Internet Group (SIG). In May 2000, BSkyB acquired SIG. This was around the time the dot.com bubble burst and Sky re-evaluated these assets, taking the decision to shut down Planet Football and sell Opta, giving Surrey Sports a £301m price tag.
Tax laws then changed with the budget of 2001 and the Alderney operation was shut down. Surrey Sports launched on the Internet and interactive TV, before being rebranded as Sky Bet in 2002 with Central House in Harrogate as our HQ. We grew reasonably well between 2002 and 2005 by focusing on betting via the Sky TV remote control.
I became Sky Bet’s managing director in 2006 and oversaw the development of our relationship with Sky Sports, the launch of an interactive TV football betting service with a betting commentary accessed via the red button on the Sky remote control, called ’Sky Bet Live’.
In 2006, BSkyB acquired 365Media Group, bringing Totalbet and UKBetting (whose customers we absorbed), Sporting Life and Oddschecker into Sky Bet and 2007 saw the launch of Sky Poker and Sky Bingo. We were now a 24/7 customer service operation, having acquired 365Media’s Cape Town office.
Sky Betting & Gaming became an independent company in March 2015 with Sky selling 80% of their share to CVC Capital Partners in a deal valuing the business at £800m. In November 2015, £11m was invested in people, buildings and marketing, creating 200 jobs and headcount doubled from 600 to 1200 in fewer than 18 months. In April 2016 we were creating jobs at our fastest ever rate, hiring just 734 people in one financial year, including 300 technologists.
What do you put this growth down to?
This growth has been down to three factors: our continuing relationship with sky, a unique culture that is flat in hierarchy and genuinely values the contribution ever employee can make, and our technological expertise.
Extensive collaboration is encouraged and a commitment to agile working means we can innovate by ‘failing fast’. This is backed up by one of the most exciting office environments in the city with an indoor football pitch, putting green and roundabout.
Reward is also market leading, with company-wide social events, product launches and parties adding to an excellent salary and benefits package. Sky Betting & Gaming is now an international company seeking further growth in markets including Germany and Italy.
Following the acquisition of the company by CVC, why did the firm choose to continue investing in its Leeds HQ?
The divestment from Sky gave more freedom to decision make in an independent and long-term way, allowing us also draw on the experience of our new owners whilst capitalising on the strength of the world-wide Sky entertainment brand.
We expanded into a second premises in Leeds, as well as opening a new office in Sheffield to access a different talent pool and now have a presence in London, Rome, and Munich.
It’s no secret that Leeds’ digital economy is booming at the moment, what do you put this growth down to?
Leeds is now much better at identifying everything that’s great here and shouting about that. The tech network from start-up to scale-up and multi-national is also functioning better now. Events such as Leeds Digital Festival, Leeds International Festival and Live at Leeds help boost the reputation of Leeds as a digital hub.
There’s also good engagement between government and the private sector and investment where it’s needed and a concerted effort to address the tech skills gap. London-based dealmakers such as GP Bullhound investment bank are more engaged than ever with the northern tech scene and national reports like Tech Nation which clearly show those cities where strengths lie also help fuel attention and growth. There are great jobs here, a good quality of life and opportunities that are only growing in scope.
What makes Leeds a great city to do business?
It’s creative, fast-moving, global in outlook, it meets the needs of people looking for an aspirational lifestyle in terms of salary, culture, sports, film, fine dining and the outdoors. It’s well connected, home-ownership is achievable and there are fantastic schools and universities on the doorstep.
On the flipside, what challenges has the sector had to face as of late and what needs to be done to overcome them?
The main issue is the skills gap, particularly in technology based careers. This is a nation-wide issue but businesses in Leeds specifically called it out as an issue in the latest Tech Nation report. We’re working hard with careers advisors to improve knowledge of the types of jobs on offer in the region and have invested significantly in a graduate software academy to help equip the next generation of software engineers with the skills they need.
Following on from the skills debate, just how easy is it to find and retain talent in Leeds when it comes to recruiting? Why do you think this is?
Research constantly points to people being very satisfied in the city and the diversity offered in a small geography in terms of employment and living opportunities is interesting. People that come to Leeds are impressed with what the find and generally stay – the same goes for us as a business. It’s getting people to consider Leeds as a location of choice in the first instance which is the main ask.
There are times when it has been challenging in Leeds – we set a high bar for recruitment, and the people here have a lot of job opportunities available to them. Many digital businesses are expanding here including Sky, so it is a competitive marketplace for talent. However, we have invested significantly in Sky Betting & Gaming’s employer brand and actively told people about what a great place it is to work here.
Some of the technology challenges and opportunities you get to work on here are like none elsewhere in the world - volumes on a Saturday afternoon are spectacular for instance. We’ve managed to fill the jobs and are very happy with the quality of people. We have also expanded in Sheffield, so we have another avenue for talent there.
Finally, looking forward, what are your plans for Sky Betting & Gaming going forward?
More of the same. A strong vision with a group of talented people pulling together to continually raise the bar and to replicate our UK success internationally. In August 2016 we launched Sky Bet Italia and we hope to follow this with Sky Bet Deutschland in Germany this year.
Published: 12 April 2017