St Minver goes for the jackpot

Visitors to the homepages of Virgin or Yahoo! wishing to play a hand of poker or count their lucky numbers with bingo, would be forgiven for thinking these games are run by such high-profile companies.

Leigh Nissim, UK managing director of St Minver, delights in noting it is in-fact the Gibraltar-based business which allows, through its licence and banking facilities, the entry of these brands into the gambling and gaming markets.

He says: ‘Yes, it is Virgin bingo and yes, it is Yahoo! bingo or casino, but the reality is that all of these sites and players are pooled on our licence, our banking, our customer service – everything.’

St Minver is a pan-European, multi-currency gaming operator that forms ‘white label’ partnerships with businesses. The partners –lacking the all-important licence and banking facilities – simply have to use their brands and databases to attract gamers to their websites, while St Minver discreetly acts as croupier, banker and enforcer of house rules.

Nissim claims that other gaming companies differ to St Minver in that they ‘like to have their cake and eat it’. By this, he means that certain companies have a white label function but also seek to maintain their own websites and brand.

In his view, there is an inherent conflict of interest when both the gaming network operator and its partners are seeking users. He argues that it is not unusual for a branded gaming outfit, providing games for a partner, to channel gamers to its own site or sites so as not to pay revenue share over to the partner.

Recipe for success

For St Minver, the white-label approach appears to be successful. Set up in 2003 by executive chairman Gary Shaw, the company now has 102 staff (85 based in Gibraltar) with turnover of £25 million for year-end July 2006. It achieved a net profit of £1.7 million for that same period.

The timing for St Minver has also been kind as the internet has finally become everything the companies had prematurely hoped for at the end of the 90s.

According to Nissim, the emergence of a genuinely worldwide web can be traced back to a specific time: October 2001. ‘There was a big spike in traffic and everyone started to pick up on the internet,’ he says. Before that time, the dot.coms were marketing to a non-existent audience as no-one was actually online.

The emergence of a virtual entertainment industry would not have been possible without broadband and service providers constantly offering faster connections. ‘This innovation is fuelling the growth of the internet so every experience online is just getting better,’ says Nissim.

Like many people at the moment, he is particularly excited by the whole phenomenon of Web 2.0. He says: ‘Basic gaming is social networking. Every day people play against each other online, they interact, talk and spend money. It’s a social environment.’

The difference between gaming – Nissim doesn’t like the term gambling – on the net and social portals like ‘MySpace and all the other internet luvvies’, he says, is that ‘this makes money’. And it will continue to do so, he thinks, as gaming sites evolve.

‘My vision is that you’ll have a MySpace type of site for gamers. You’ll come onto your web space, you’ll have your own personalised homepage, with you own games, account balance and information telling you “people-who-have-played-these-games-have-also-played”, and you’ll have a group of friends who are online who you can join. The gaming industry has been quite slow in following these principles.’

The US internet gambling ban has not been too problematic for St Minver as the company had wisely chosen to avoid that market. However, Nissim observes it does make it harder as there is less liquidity in the gaming world and more competition within Europe.

‘Big brands are coming in and saying to potential partners: “I’ll cut you a cheque for £1.5 million for 12 months and you have got to guarantee me a certain number of players.”’

Nissim is, however, confident that St Minver is in a strong position to fight off the gaming companies that don’t operate to its white label model: ‘Google, AOL, BBC, eBay, MSN, Yahoo!, are all moving into the gaming space and that is where we position ourselves.’

From London to Istanbul

At present, the company, through its partners, operates across a network of 96 poker, bingo and casino sites (32 in the UK). Aside from the language difficulties, there is also the need to keep a look out for internet fraud and, to this end, St Minver has five people dedicated to working on security.

‘We have 45,000 cash players a day coming in. It’s quite a high volume to watch but over time you recognise the traits of players,’ he says.

Finding the right staff has, he notes, been a challenge. The competition for people with the appropriate skills is high; this is complicated by a non-poaching policy in Gibraltar, where many of the gaming companies are based.

Nissim expects to push its number of partners from 96 up to around 120 over the coming months and is happy with how the partners are spread across the business (no-one constitutes more than four to five per cent of revenue). The aim now is clearly to get bigger by upping the volume of gamers across the various sites.

‘We’ve never missed growth expectations,’ he says. ‘Our partners are always gobsmacked by the returns. The reason I like St Minver is that the business model is profitable, it generates cash, it takes the purist assets of the internet and makes them work.’

As for the wider, moral question about outfits like St Minver encouraging gambling, Nissim again refers to the security procedures, noting that the company is socially aware. ‘We go through stringent checks to make sure the games and the people who are playing are monitored appropriately and ethically,’ he reassures.

The recent decision to open a super casino in Manchester shows that gambling’s popularity is, if anything, on the rise. As Nissim succinctly puts it: ‘The thing is, it is happening anyway. Either you continue to provide a service for players and retain them or someone else is going to take them away.’

Game on.

Marc Barber

Raven Connelly

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.