October 16, 2021

Entain boss builds technology army to expand digital products

Many of us started new jobs during the pandemic. But few, if any, took over a company during lockdown, in the middle of a takeover bid, weeks after the business had announced a strategic overhaul and rebrand, in an industry under heavy pressure from regulators.

When Jette Nygaard-Andersen was appointed chief executive of Entain, the London-listed gambling group, she had the added challenge of succeeding the company founder’s chosen successor, Shay Segev, who had only been in the role seven months.

Yet the 52-year-old Dane seems unfazed by what others might view as a turbulent appointment.

“Certainly I wasn’t expecting that Shay would resign . . . [but] when you get that call from the chair you certainly say yes, let’s sit down and have that chat,” she says.

Nygaard-Andersen had served on Entain’s board for just over a year. Segev resigned to take the top job at sports streaming platform DAZN with a much higher salary, people close to the company have said. “That call” came in the middle of the Christmas break, just days before the US casino group MGM made public an £8bn offer for Entain, which the company’s board rejected.

By the time Nygaard-Andersen took up her role in January, MGM, which runs a joint venture with Entain in the US, had withdrawn their offer. “I knew the circumstance but I also knew what a fantastic future we had as a company,” Nygaard-Andersen says, hinting that there was a measure of relief that MGM’s retreat allowed her to focus on broadening Entain’s traditional sports betting business into new markets and different forms of virtual entertainment.

If MGM returns with another takeover attempt in the second half of this year, as many suspect it will, it is “a discussion for the board and up to the shareholders”, she says.

Nygaard-Andersen joined Entain, which owns bookmakers Ladbrokes and Coral as well as the online gambling brand Bwin, in December 2019 as a non-executive director after an approach from a headhunter. With 25 years experience in the media industry under her belt, she was brought in to shape the company’s strategy and its rebrand from GVC to Entain — an effort to refresh the group after its founder Kenny Alexander, a racehorse-owning gambling executive of the old school, stepped down in 2020.

The company identified “four pillars” for growth: its core sports betting and gambling business, the newly regulated US market, countries set soon to legalise betting and new digital products, such as esports.

Nygaard-Andersen picked up where Segev left off but without the luxury of being able to meet colleagues in each of the company’s 27 territories.

“I had to use what I had, which was my platform, the same platform I am speaking to you, so in that way I had to think differently,” she says over a video call from her home in Copenhagen. She decided the most important things were good communication and picking her targets. “When you only have a virtual platform you need to be very focused. I chose two things. One thing was around the customer and the other was around interactive entertainment.”

Historically, gambling companies have not been renowned for customer service. In the UK, an overhaul of the gambling laws is under way following campaigns chastising companies for pursuing and profiting from addicted customers. She hopes pressure to show regulators that the industry can provide technological solutions to gambling addiction through one-on-one interventions while customers are playing will change how the sector is perceived.

“If you really start to think about . . . how we are using our technology to enable that personalised protection for each single player then you will realise that we are more advanced than many other industries are,” she says.

Entain has developed a programme called “Advance Responsibility and Care”. It uses artificial intelligence to flag problematic gambling behaviour and send prompts to gamblers to stop once they reach certain thresholds. The company has put £20m towards responsible gambling, though campaigners say this is little for a company that reported earnings before tax, interest, depreciation and amortisation of £843m last year.

Nygaard-Andersen says the investment is more than that when the time that has gone into improving Entain’s platform is included. She admits she learnt the hard way about putting the customer first. In 2012, she launched a streaming platform called Viaplay while working at MTG, a Swedish media company. Then Netflix came along. While Viaplay had “a huge suite” of content and good technology, it lacked the US company’s “deep understanding of the consumer experience”.

Nygaard-Andersen argues that after 22 consecutive quarters of double digit online growth, Entain could be classed along with “the Netflixes and the Pelotons and the Facebooks of the world”, but she says in order to remain there it must stay ahead of technological change and its impact on consumer behaviour.

The Entain boss uses streaming as an analogy for her reason to push the gambling company into other areas of entertainment. The move from the late 1990s when phone-in gameshows were the extent of interactive TV to on-demand streaming has been rapid, she points out. “We need to think about how am I relevant in five years and how will I continue to be relevant in 10 years, and that is what is driving the thinking around interactive entertainment and new areas.”

Three questions for Jette Nygaard-Andersen

Malala Yousafzai
Leadership hero, Malala Yousafzai

Who is your leadership hero?

It would be Malala [Yousafzai]. She is hugely inspiring and as a human rights advocate focusing on education for women and children around the world that really plays back to my belief that if we are really going to change the really big challenges we are facing as a globe it starts with making sure that everyone gets a good education.

What would you be doing if you were not CEO of Entain?

I would probably do the same thing in another industry. I thrive in exactly where I am right now: where we have opportunities to grow in the industry, opportunities to innovate, opportunities to expand on our platform and really evolve as a business.

What is your most important leadership lesson?

I think that the first one is to listen and be open minded. That is also the hardest one, right, but there is a reason we have two ears and one mouth. One that I have thought a lot about during the pandemic is I want to lead through context and not through control. That means you set the context for where you want to go, you give your teams all the information they need to make good decisions and that has been important during the pandemic when you are not on the ground.

Entain has recruited 2,000 people into its technology team over the past 14 months, tripling it in size, and is piloting a virtual reality “sports club” with Verizon Media later in the year. The company is also working to combine statistics and analysis of sports matches into its live video streams and is exploring an entry into the fast-growing esports sector, which Nygaard-Andersen has been involved with since 2015.

This week, Entain will hold a capital markets day, allowing its chief executive to flesh out her plans. As one of only two women at the head of a large sports betting group — the other is Denise Coates, founder of Bet365 — Nygaard-Andersen says she also wants to push the gambling industry into another unfamiliar area: recruiting and educating more women.

Entain’s technology workforce is 30 per cent female, roughly double the sector average and it has donated $250,000 to Girls Who Code, a not-for-profit organisation that supports women into the tech industries. In February, the company launched a training scheme through the University of Nevada to encourage more women to work in the sector.

There is an element of self-interest, of course: “I firmly believe to be the best in our industry and achieve our ambitions we need to have the best talent, period,” Nygaard-Andersen says.

And being the best is not something the Danish executive, who gave up playing the video game Counter Strike because she was not fast enough, takes lightly. “I like to win,” she says. “I really like to win.”

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