People moves

A turning point for the industry?

7 minutes read
The past week has seen three women appointed to chief executive roles in the gambling industry. Joanne Christie investigates whether this is a happy coincidence or a sign of broader change on the gender diversity front.

When news of Entain’s appointment of Jette Nygaard-Andersen as its new chief executive broke last week, almost every mainstream press report contained the word ‘female’ in the headline.

Some would question why news reports needed to mention her gender at all. After all, how often do headlines note that a newly appointed chief exec is male?

And presumably Nygaard-Andersen was chosen based on merit – indeed Entain chairman Barry Gibson described her as, “an outstanding candidate and readymade CEO”.

On the other hand, there is an undeniable lack of female representation at the top of FTSE 100 companies. Nygaard-Andersen’s appointment takes the CEO tally up to just eight, according to online investment platform AJ Bell.

And while the business world has historically been poor at achieving balanced gender representation at the highest levels, the gaming industry has been particularly behind the curve in this regard. In fact, Nygaard-Andersen’s hiring marks the first ever female CEO of a listed British gaming company.

However, despite describing gambling as, “an industry that remains a bastion of male dominance, as even the debate within horse racing over the role and skills of jump jockey Bryony Frost currently suggests”,  AJ Bell’s investment director Russ Mould indicated last week he expected shareholders to back the appointment. 

“Nygaard-Andersen will take the helm of a company whose assets include Ladbrokes and Coral, British bookmakers that have never before had a female CEO, although shareholders will doubtless look to the phenomenal success of Bet365 under Denise Coates as proof that skills and drive matter while gender doesn’t,” he said.

“Boardrooms need, and benefit from, diversity of experience and background especially as this helps management teams to avoid the dangers of group-think and confirmation bias. This will be particularly important in the global gambling business, where the rapid pace of change in both technology and regulation mean that fresh opportunities and dangers are presenting themselves all of the time.”

In the same week as Entain’s announcement, the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) named Lynda Cavanaugh as its interim president and chief executive and yesterday (26 January) Malta’s Interactive Gaming Group named Cristina Niculae its new CEO.

But is this trio of female CEO hirings a happy coincidence or a sign the industry is finally moving in the right direction?

‘At an inflection point’

Andrew Bulloss, who recruits senior hires for the gaming industry in his role as partner at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, says he believes it is more likely the latter. 

He notes that companies in the industry are becoming increasingly focused on making sure they consider diversity when making senior hires.

“Organisations have finally woken up to the fact that having someone other than a white man run your business is actually beneficial for the business and the people within it.

“I think the industry is genuinely at a bit of an inflection point and it will be very interesting to see where it goes over the next two to three years because it cannot continue in a similar vein to how it has for the last four or five years.”

Cristina Niculae, who moved to Interactive Gaming Group from Gaming Innovation Group (GiG), where she was chief strategy officer, adds that while the pandemic has undoubtedly disproportionally affected women in many ways, it has also highlighted some of their strengths.

“One characteristic of women is that we are very resilient in the face of adversity, so I think that [company] founders are starting to see that in times of challenge, women bring the empathy and unity that is required in these types of leadership roles, especially in times of rapid change and especially for companies that are innovating or trying new things. Empathy and bringing people together are really important traits for creating a strong culture of people.”

Niculae is a relative newcomer to the industry, having joined GiG in 2017 after holding senior technology roles at well-known companies such as McDonald’s, Ericsson and Oracle. 

Despite working in igaming for only a few years, she says over that time she has noticed an increase in the willingness of companies to consider women for top roles. She hopes Nygaard-Andersen’s appointment will increase this further.

“It is a really, really positive thing to see. Having a female CEO at one of the FTSE 100 companies is really inspiring and is really giving everybody a chance to believe that they can also do it,” she says.

Deeper problems

But while Bulloss says having three new female CEO hires in the sector in the past seven days undoubtedly sends out a “fantastic message”, the industry needs to do more in terms of nurturing talent at lower levels of their businesses so they can one day reach C-level.

“It is only in the last 18 months to two years that businesses have been particularly proactive about it and two years isn’t long enough to have upgraded all this diverse talent in the sector to make them fit the C-level.”

In the absence of obvious internal candidates, many companies approach recruiters with a brief to produce diverse candidates for high-level roles, but this is no easy task. 

“A lot of organisations have an expectation that headhunters are a silver bullet solution to finding diverse talent at the top level even though over the last 10 years there has not been a proactive approach by organisations to proactively identify and bring that talent into the sector,” he says.

One approach he espouses and one which appears to have worked for Entain is that of bringing potential leadership candidates into their organisations as non-executive directors.

“This is a great way to bring people into the industry and bring them into the organisation,” says Bulloss.

Nygaard-Andersen, who joined Entain’s board as an independent non-executive director in 2019, isn’t the first gaming CEO to enter the industry via board membership. NetEnt CEO Therese Hillman was a board member at Unibet prior to joining the slots giant.

While in the past many companies in the igaming industry were somewhat reluctant to hire candidates from outside the sector, this has changed in recent years, says Bulloss. 

This is likely at least partially due to the shift in focus as companies seek to move away from a business model that relies on a small number of high-rollers and instead looks to provide more entertainment-led propositions for a much larger group of casual gamers.

More work to do

But even now that igaming firms are coming around to the potential of candidates from outside the industry, some potential hires remain reluctant to consider igaming roles due to the negative public perception of the industry. 

However, given how well igaming has performed throughout the pandemic compared with some of the sectors it sometimes seeks to recruit leadership candidates from – online travel and retail, in particular – it could now be better positioned to entice strong candidates into the industry.

The industry’s efforts to broaden its talent pool will only work if viewed as authentic and not just about optics.  

“Both inside the sector and outside the sector there needs to be an aspirational message out there that this is in fact happening and it is not happening simply as a knee-jerk reaction to everything that is going on in the world,” says Bulloss. “There is still an embedded problem in some organisations with what I call ‘diversity deniers’, who don’t think there is a problem and that things can just continue as they are.”

Indeed, while having successfully navigated her way into the C-suite herself, Niculae acknowledges there are issues in the sector and to counter this has recently cofounded a non-profit called Bravewo

The organisation aims to support women facing discrimination and bullying in the workplace via a mentoring programme and there are plans to hold webinars and events in future.

“It’s open to everyone but I felt there was a need in the gaming industry to help women that were facing these situations. 

“Women supporting women is a call that I really believe in. I think there should be more women supporting other women, especially in our industry.”

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