Fred Done built the world’s biggest independent bookies. He tells Maria McGeoghan how he did it.
How does a billionaire order a pot of tea? Seated in his very posh office full of wood and leather Fred Done - the man behind Betfred - stamps on the floor three times as if waiting for a genie to appear. She does - bearing a tray of builders’ brew with milk no sugar.
“Oh, that’s how I communicate,” says Fred, waving away my look of puzzlement. Looking nothing like his 73 years, Fred spends the next hour telling me how he made his fortune, why he’s never read a contract in his life, why he gets up at 5am and how signing a cheque for £1m to settle a football bet was all in a day’s work.
Along the way he’s full of advice, “If you don’t enjoy your work don’t do it. Life’s too short,” and some very funny moments. “You’re just like Columbo - just one more thing,” he says when I squeak in one last question aware that time has run over and there’s a queue of people waiting outside his office.
I should have realised this was going to be a very different sort of interview when I arrived at the Betfred HQ in Warrington and the two women running the reception desk beckoned me over to look at a picture of a colleague’s baby scan. The mum to be had just returned from a hospital appointment and wanted to tell the world her good news.
It’s a million miles away from the many hushed and austere reception areas I’ve sat in over the years waiting to be summoned to The Boss. On the landing up to the first floor is an impressive wooden statue of a horse - what else would it be? - and then he shakes hands and shows me in to his office.
So where did it all begin? “I hated school,” says Fred. “I was no good at anything. I was wasting my time.” He had early dreams of becoming a draughtsman for an engineering company, but soon realised that wasn’t for him. “I was the worst draughtsman ever made.”
His Dad Fred had been an illegal bookmaker during the war and made a good living so at the tender age of fifteen and a half he followed in his footsteps. “After a while I started to love it. I knew how to treat people. It’s all about service and value. I’d call the dustman Sir.“
At 21 he was running an office taking telephone bets and had 15 men under his wing, and at 24 he set up his own betting shop in Pendleton. “It was the 4th of September 1967. I can remember that but I can’t remember when I got married,” he says with a grin. “There was me, my brother Peter, my Dad Fred and my wife Mo who was cashier and cleaner.
“I had no hard plan or budgets. We were just making a living. We made slow progress in the early days. Over 10 years we opened 30 shops. I should have been more aggressive earlier on.”
Sixteen shops in the North East followed and then he bought a further 40 shops in a £10m deal. “By then I had the confidence to do deals. We looked for greenfield sites or set up opposite the competition. Ladbrokes, Hills and Corals. I knew I had to be different. I suppose I was the Aldi or Lidl of betting at the time. I undercut everything and that’s why I got the moniker The Bonus King.
“We’ve now got over 1,370 shops, employ 10,000 people, we’re the world’s biggest independent bookmakers and 100% owned by the family. “
And Betfred recently announced it is shelling out £55m for a further 322 shops from Ladbrokes and Gala Coral to allow a pending merger between the two rivals to conclude.
According to the Sunday Times Rich List the whole Done empire - owned by Fred and his brother Peter - is worth £1.3bn and includes sports promotion and property.
In all of that success what was the best decision you have ever made? “I started a development department and at our peak we were opening 80 shops a year. I loved being part of that team. We looked at pubs, at bus stops and shops before we decided where to open a shop. You have to give people what they want.”
And the worst? “Hmmm. I suppose I’ve made some rash decisions but they’ve come off more than they haven’t."
For Fred a typical day starts at 5am when he gets up to put his two cats out and puts the kettle on. “They must hate me for getting up that early!”
All the numbers for all his businesses are loaded on to his computer by 4.15 am so he brings his wife a cup of tea first and then goes through them all. “I accept bad days as well as good.
“I’m completely useless at home. I have trouble opening a bottle of milk. The only thing I’ve ever been any good at making is money. “
Four or five days a week a personal trainer takes him through exercises, including yoga, and he leaves for work before 8am.
Says Fred: “I thought yoga was for cissies but I really enjoy it.“ Holidays centre around his house in Majorca and the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, where he has his own butler. “I think it’s the best hotel in the world,” says Fred. “I take business calls between 4 and 6pm when I’m there on holiday.
“I work five and a half days a week including Saturday morning and I never switch off my mobile.
“People ask when are you going to pack it in and take it easy but I love this business. I still enjoy working.
“I’ve never read a contract in my life. I’ve got very good people around me who do that.“
Our conversation turns to his brother Peter. “I don’t want this to be just about me. My brother Peter has been running Peninsula for 30 years and he started out with one man and a dog. They now work with 35,000 companies in the UK offering HR, employment law and health and safety services. All credit to him.”
So what keeps you awake at night?
“Certainly not business. If anyone in the family was ill that would keep me awake.”
Fred and his family are well known for being generous to many charities but on this subject he is not forthcoming.
“I don’t want to talk about that. That’s a private thing.“
Does he still have a flutter?
“No. I don’t bet any more. The biggest bet I lost was on United finishing above Chelsea in the Premiership. I signed a cheque for £1m.“ ‘Didn’t that break your heart?’ I ask. He shrugs and grins.
On the wider subject of responsible gambling he adds: “Betting has been legal in the UK since 1961. We have a triennial review looking at our operation. On every £8 I make, £7 of it goes on taxes and levies. We give the customer a good service. You know where you are with us. It’s not perfect but we do the best we can with it.”
And how will Brexit affect the business? “I saw Brexit as an opportunity but I didn’t think we would vote to leave. We lost half a million on the Brexit vote. We’ve now got to play with the cards we’ve got.” And as one of the UK’s top businessmen what advice would you give to anyone starting up a business?
“If you fail, start again.
If you fail, start again.
If you fail, start again.
There is no disgrace in failure. Know your stuff. Do your due diligence.
And have money in the bank for when it hits the fan.“