Have you heard of Britain's highest paid boss?

Denise Coates took home £217m last year. But who is she?

by Arun Kakar
Last Updated: 14 Nov 2017

Any football fan will have heard of Bet365, the online gambling platform responsible for Ray Winstone’s incessant half-time appearances offering live odds on the game’s next goal scorer. Less well known is the brain behind the betting behemoth, CEO Denise Coates, who just emerged as Britain’s best-paid boss.

Last year, Coates took home a cool £217m. That may seem small change for a company that made a record £525m profit from £47bn’s worth of bets, but it’s still staggering. It also adds to an already immense fortune. The Coates family, which owns 93% of Bet365, has a net worth of £5bn, making them the 22nd richest in the UK, above the Bransons.

Yet Britain’s wealthiest self-made woman also keeps a very low profile. She rarely gives interviews and lives discreetly, the only obvious public sign of her immense fortune being the personalised Aston Martin she drives to work. Just how did she become so successful? We dug into the story behind the pay packet.

Gambling on a start-up

Coates founded Bet365 in a Portakabin in 2000, after buying the domain on eBay for $25,000.

A first class econometrics grad from the University of Sheffield, she’d trained as an accountant at her family’s gambling firm. Her father Peter, who now owns a small stake in Bet365 and is chairman of Stoke City football club, then put her in charge.

It didn’t take long for Coates to see the opportunity in the burgeoning internet. London VCs weren’t interested in the idea, so she looked to her family and the Royal Bank of Scotland for funding.

‘We mortgaged the betting shops and put it all into online. We knew the industry required big start-up costs but … we gambled everything on it,’ she told the Guardian in her only newspaper interview five years ago. ‘We were the ultimate gamblers if you like.’

An industry juggernaut

Bet365 was one of the many betting firms to benefit from the deregulation of the gambling industry in 2005, but Coates capitalised on this better than anybody. Bet365 became one of the fastest growing tech companies of the noughties through innovations such as live-betting, cash out and streaming offerings made available through its platform. 

Bet365 is the UK’s second largest gambling firm behind the recently-merged Ladbrokes-Coral, with a 40% share of online bets. The company remains in its native Stoke, making it the region’s largest private sector employer with 4,000 jobs. It has also earned plaudits for paying its taxes in the UK (a novel idea: Silicon Valley big cheeses, take note), with £130m going to HMRC in 2012.

Coates was awarded a CBE for services to community and business in 2012, but you’re unlikely to see her in public. The mother of five refuses to give face-to-face interviews and even her age is kept under wraps. You might have to look back as far as 2011’s Stoke vs Man City FA Cup final for her last public appearance. ‘The public side does not come naturally to me,’ she told the Guardian. 

The controversy

Coates’ £217m earnings dwarf last year’s highest paid CEO Martin Sorrell, who took home a mere £47m. She made 13,000 times more than the Prime Minister, or more than double the wage bill of Stoke City football club.

It’s likely to raise some eyebrows, not just because the public and investor mood has turned against eye-watering CEO salaries, but also because of the sector she is in. There are increased concerns over gambling addiction in the UK, with charity Addaction claiming Coates is paid 22 times more than the entire industry donates to help addiction.

‘There are around 430,000 problem gamblers and a further two million believed to be at risk,’ said a spokesperson from Gambleaware, a charity that is funded by the industry and last year received £8m against the £13m it was expecting. ‘At the moment, there is a huge shortfall in funding.’

Coates has donated £50m of her personal fortune to the Denise Coates Foundation, which focuses on medical care and education, but crucially does not contribute anything to gambling addiction causes, according to its latest accounts. She said in a statement to her shareholders that she recognises the responsibility of Bet365 to minimise gambling-related harm and is committed to developing an  ‘evidence based approach to responsible gambling.’

Still, many will see Coates’ massive pay packet as a call to action for the industry. ‘This sort of pay packet could be seen as a provocation and force government to act,’ says Stefan Stern, director of the High Pay Institute. ‘Business does not operate in isolation from society.’

It’s a level of attention she’s unlikely to enjoy. 





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