herald

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Dan White: The stakes were high and he knew the risks

A combination of a slump in consumer spending, reckless over-expansion and a failure to move its operations online led to the collapse of former Fine Gael minister Ivan Yates' Celtic Bookmakers.

Rumours had been spreading in betting circles for months that Celtic Bookmakers was in trouble.

These rumours were confirmed this week with the appointment of a receiver.

Founded a quarter of a century ago by Ivan Yates and his wife Deirdre, Celtic had 64 betting shops at its peak and was taking in €180m bets a year.

That was then and this is now.

The recession has wreaked havoc with Celtic's finances. As Yates himself wrote is his newspaper column today, while you have to buy food or clothes, you don't have to place a bet. So it proved with Celtic with its turnover halving to just €90m over the past three years.

For a business such as Celtic with high fixed costs, the consequences were disastrous.

It was tied into expensive top-of-the-market rents for its shops. It also spent money on expensive acquisitions, including €4m on fellow bookie Joe Molloy and €2.5m on UBET, at just the wrong time. Much of this money was borrowed, with Celtic owing AIB €6m. This meant that, despite slashing its annual operating costs from €17m to less than €12m, Celtic was doomed.

Unfortunately for Yates he has given personal guarantees for Celtic's borrowings. This means that AIB can pursue him for everything he owns, including his family home and that of his 78-year-old mother. Yates quite literally faces personal ruin.

It might not be any consolation to Yates, but Celtic isn't the only retailer in trouble. Hairdressing chain Toni and Guy is today announcing it is to "restructure" its 11-strong chain of Irish hair salons.

And Cafe Bar Deli, which closed two of its outlets last year, will go to the high court next week to apply for an examiner to be appointed this month.

However, the recession was only part of Yates' and Celtic's problems.

Even if it wasn't for the recession, conventional bookie's shops would still be in trouble. They are facing increasing competition from online bookmakers and betting exchanges which can operate for a fraction of the cost of a traditional bookie's shop.

If you are a regular customer with one of the online betting exchanges, where customers bet against one another, the only cost is the commission on winnings. This can be as low as 3pc for regular customers. By comparison, even the most efficient high-street bookmaker must keep at least 12pc of every bet wagered to cover his costs.



desperately

This gap in costs means that the betting exchanges and the online bookmakers have been able to consistently under-cut the retail bookies. Not surprisingly, the bigger betting chains have been desperately trying to move their businesses online.

What is now happening to retail bookmakers reflects what happened to the travel agents around the middle of the last decade. There was a time not so long ago when there was a travel agent on every Irish high street and in every shopping centre. Not any more. The rise of online booking sites has virtually eliminated the traditional travel agent.

Will something similar happen to the bookie's shop? Probably yes. Celtic may have been the first major Irish-owned retail bookmaking chain to bite the dust, it certainly won't be the last.

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