Gaming Intelligence HOT 50 of 2017 – Backstage Heroes. Celebrating the most talented, innovative and inspiring individuals in the online gaming industry.
Sky Betting & Gaming
Sky Betting & Gaming has enjoyed another strong year and Andy Burton deserves more credit for this success. Proprietary technology underpins the CVC-owned offering, and 2016 saw investment increase markedly, with Sky Bet looking to double the headcount in its Sheffield office. In his seven years with the operator he has consistently embraced new technology and new development approaches, helping it scale for an ever-expanding customer base at a time when competitors rely on legacy platforms. The UK government’s talk of a ‘northern powerhouse’ has cooled in recent months but as a major employer in Leeds and with its growing Sheffield base, Burton is ensuring this is not just political hot air.
Chief strategy officer
Kindred/Unibet continues to march on. It has one of the tightest management teams and Rhodri Darch is a key member of that team. Darch is known for asking tough questions and he creates a framework for tough decisions to be taken. While it would be wrong to credit him entirely with Kindred’s decision to go it alone with poker and bingo, the chief strategy officer is an influential voice. The move has given Kindred a different face to the competition and it is slowly reaping the rewards.
Head of product strategy
Tony Evans has been around the industry for nearly 20 years and has been at Playtech long enough to be trusted with the role of lead champion for Playtech One, the business’s central omni-channel platform. As such, he is vital to the company’s strategy. Evans knows the company’s products inside out and is a key player in liaising between senior management, commercial teams and clients. He is equally adept at assisting with the rollout of existing technology or planning the next phase of emerging technology. With a research and innovation team of his very own, he will have a big influence on the future strategy of Playtech and, by extension, the gaming industry as a whole.
Chief executive officer
UK Gambling Commission
Sarah Harrison received an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list last year for services to consumer protection in her former role with energy regulator Ofgem. Now she needs to do the same for the UK gambling market, with the government undertaking a review of gambling machines and social responsibility measures to balance responsible growth in the industry with the protection of consumers and communities. The Gambling Commission will have a big say in how these measures eventually get implemented and this will be the biggest challenge for Harrison since she joined the UK regulator in October 2015.
Group head of trading & operations
Jim Humberstone has long been GVC chief executive Kenny Alexander’s trusted lieutenant. He was chief operating officer until the operator recruited Shay Segev and Jim Humberstone was transferred to a role in which he really excels. Humberstone took the GVC trading model and implemented it at newly-acquired bwin.party. Within a year, the business had been turned around. Margins have improved by about one per cent. He has been a huge influence on making a success of an acquisition that to some looked like a massive gamble. Alexander knew better. He knew he had Humberstone’s trading know-how, which is second to none.
Head of bingo
Adele Lawton gained her well-deserved reputation as a bingo expert during long spells at JackpotJoy and Gala Coral but she has been unlucky with shorter stints in tricky roles at Betable and Betfred. But if B2B was not to her liking at Playtech, she gained a fan there in the shape of current GVC COO Shay Segev. He has recruited her to bring the glory days back to Foxy Bingo. The brand was once one of the biggest in the UK but like many of bwin.party’s once formidable brands, it has fallen down the rankings. Lawton will be determined to take it back to the top but this will be a true test of her mettle. GVC will give her the backing necessary. And those who know her will back her to succeed.
Head of game integrity and risk
Tania Johannisson could be the very definition of the backstage hero. She started life as a dealer but has progressed throughout the organisation, and after working closely with Evolution’s COO, Johannisson was assigned to lead a project to build a tailor-made anti-fraud department from scratch. She has developed and has been managing the unit since 2011. It now comprises around 350 risk-related employees. The team monitors the activity of over 70 casino operators with up to 7,000 concurrent players and almost six million bets per day. She has introduced a series of new security procedures and tools, and is even listed as an inventor of patents filed for such fraud defence mechanisms as the Evo Shuffle Integrity (to fight card games’ advantage play) and Evo Wheel Integrity (a proactive and automated surveillance tool for monitoring a Roulette wheel’s performance and its entire operational life-cycle). Johannisson’s work is so appreciated by the company’s hierachy that it is now considered one of Evolution Gaming’s USPs.
Chief commercial officer
Ebba Ljungerud is not one of Kindred’s longest-serving executives but she has climbed the tree quickly since joining to manage Maria Bingo in 2010. When Mattias Stetz left to join Rush Street Gaming last year, she was appointed chief commercial officer. She now has about 600 people reporting to her and full commercial accountability for all of Kindred’s brands. She has the intelligence, charm and ambition to make light work of a potentially daunting task. With her new responsibilities, she is probably one of the most powerful women in the industry to boot.
SVP head of product technologies
There are some who look at 888’s product and don’t see anything very exciting. There are others that marvel at its CRM and continued growth and recognise that there is something special going on in the back end. Hila Klein is largely responsible for this special sauce. She helms 888’s 500-strong technology team. While the continued evolution of a market-leading CRM system has been key, Klein has also put renewed effort into the company’s in-house slots team. The result has been games like Jack’s Pot and The Big Lebowski, which have been among 888’s best performing. Klein is one of the industry’s highest-flying female execs and a real star.
Corporate chief information officer
Codere launched a new online betting and gaming platform in its home market of Spain at the end of last year and is already gaining significant market share from its competitors. Having gone online in Italy in 2010, it took a while to get going in Spain but it is finally making inroads. Felipe Ludeña has been a crucial part of this and remains key to the company’s continued expansion in the iGaming sector. As a predominantly land-based business, Codere has all the assets to ensure this happens, particularly in the untapped South American markets where it already has a significant presence and operates Codere.mx in Mexico.
Chief product officer
Yggdrasil has grown strongly despite limited resources, using outsourcing effectively to ensure it can develop innovative in-game features to support its highly-regarded products. Krzysztof Opalka’s promotion to chief product officer, having spent just under a year as head of front-end development and operations, means he will play a major part in continuing to push the business forward in 2017. Having worked as a game developer for social giant King he has experience of developing exactly the kind of playful and colourful content that has helped Yggdrasil grow to prominence. Revenue for the developer rose almost 300 per cent to SEK21.0m in Q3 2016, and can be expected to continue rising this year.
Chief commercial officer
Bet-on-lotteries pioneer Lottoland has been making big waves by actively disrupting a multi-billion-dollar industry. While it is struggling to gain market share in the Camelot-dominated UK lottery market, its success in Germany and Australia has been simply outstanding. A lot of Lottoland’s operational success is down to Matt Robinson, who has driven the company’s incredible growth in the past two years. In 2016, revenue reached €300m, compared to zero just four years ago. His experiences at 888, bwin.party and Betfair have been fortified at Lottoland, which will soon expand its offering to allow the resale of official lottery tickets online. Expect Robinson to drive it on in 2017.
Group director, gaming strategy
Gil Rotem is simply one of the best brains in the business. This is his second appearance in the Hot 50 and he has forged a mighty partnership with 2016 Hot 50 winner Chab Bogstrand to keep bet365’s gaming operation one step ahead of most of the competition. Rotem’s expertise is held in awe by colleagues and collaborators but he remains approachable, friendly and ever-helpful. There are a few superstars at bet365 and Rotem is one of the brightest.
Chief operating officer
Stride Gaming is a company that is going places and Darren Sims is one of the chief reasons. While the company has acquired 105 brands and a 10 per cent share of the UK bingo market, it has also made significant, er, strides into the US social gaming space. And Sims has made sure that all those brands are working optimally. The figures are good, with net gaming revenue up 22 per cent to nearly £48m at the end of the last financial year. While Sims has a tough job integrating all those acquisitions, Stride is planning more. Sims will no doubt take it in his, er, stride.
Product director, online gaming
Betclic Everest veteran Warren Steven was tempted to swap Europe for the US by his old boss Thomas Winter, and this partnership is achieving huge success. Golden Nugget took longer than its competitors to go live in New Jersey – something that many thought would leave it lagging behind. Instead it is closing in on the state market leader Borgata. Steven’s work as product director and his European experience is helping Golden Nugget become the first to launch virtual sports and live dealer gaming in the state. He could yet help it take top spot.
Chief technology officer
LeoVegas has been one of the revelations of the online casino industry in the past few years, and underwent a successful IPO during 2016. Its focus on mobile has been made possible through its investment in its platform, and this is where John Strömberg comes in. He has served as group CTO for the past three years and is also CEO of Gears of Leo, the technology development arm of the LeoVegas group. He has a wealth of technical experience from his time at Bonnier Group, HiQ and Rebtel, but in LeoVegas he has found a team that has backed and supported his technical expertise.
Head of poker
In Q3 Kindred’s poker revenue doubled to £3.2m. This effectively vindicates the company’s decision to leave Microgaming’s MPN in favour of a stand-alone product developed by Relax Gaming in 2013. Andrew West has been working for the offering since before it launched in 2015, and has overseen a product that has seen revenue climb more than 30 per cent for two consecutive years, at a time when wider online poker industry income has dropped around 20 per cent. The launch of its Kindred Poker 2.0 client in December 2016 will provide a litmus test. If its casual model can continue to attract players at a time when other operators are moving towards the recreational model, it looks set to become a significant player in the market.
Gaming Intelligence Awards & Hot 50 of 2017
GIA Casino Operator of the Year: Amaya
GIA Bingo Operator of the Year: Jackpotjoy
GIA Poker Operator of the Year: Amaya
GIA Lottery Operator of the Year: British Columbia Lottery Corporation
GIA Social Casino Operator of the Year: Zynga Casino
GIA Sports Betting Operator of the Year: Sky Bet
GIA Socially Responsible Operator of the Year: Unibet
GIA Game of the Year: Cash Out Roulette, Be The House
GIA Marketing Campaign of the Year: 888Sport
GIA Bingo Supplier of the Year: Dragonfish
GIA Casino Supplier of the Year: NETENT
GIA Lottery Supplier of the Year: Scientific Games
GIA Marketing Services Provider of the Year: Optimove
GIA Poker Supplier of the Year: Relax Gaming
GIA Social Casino Supplier of the Year: Greentube
GIA Sports Betting Supplier of the Year: SBTech
GIA Innovation Award: Digital Sports Tech, Player Prop Bets
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