After graduating from the University of Edinburgh Henry Birch, Chief Executive of Rank Group, started his career working in the House of Commons in the office of Lord Steele. He then embarked on a media career with Turner Broadcasting which then became Time Warner before eventually moving into the gaming industry – a sector that has seen him rise through the ranks over the last two decades to become one of the youngest CEO’s of a FTSE-250 company (aged just 45 years at time of appointment).
How did an early career in politics and the media prepare you for a career in the gaming industry?
My career has never been planned. In reality, I have been opportunistic but there are two themes that run through it – regulation, during my time in the political world as a lobbyist and then in the media industry, and technology.
When I was at what soon became Time Warner, I was working in cable and satellite TV which at the time was completely new technology. I followed this up some time later when I studied for two years for an MBA at Stanford University – located in Silicon Valley, which is of course heavily technology focused.
So while the link between politics, technology and gaming may not at first seem an obvious one, the overriding theme running through my career is working with businesses that have been changed or challenged by technology as well as regulation – the gambling industry being a perfect example of one that is regulatory driven.
There is a debate taking place right now over how much importance should be placed on MBA’s for all aspiring and current business leaders. What are your thoughts?
It was a significant investment both in terms of time and money when I studied for my MBA and there is a part of me that thinks they have been somewhat devalued by the plethora of online and distance learning options that are available today. It is good that more and more people are able gain an MBA, but the flip side with this is that the qualification itself may be regarded with less importance than the institution it was awarded by in the eyes of some.
From a personal development perspective it is certainly a good thing, but for career development employers are really looking for other qualities that go beyond the qualifications a person may hold. There is a danger that if the UK follows the US in terms of pushing for greater post graduate qualifications, we could end up with an over-educated workforce which isn’t really necessary.
What was your biggest, most pivotal career break?
It was when I was first given the opportunity to move from being part of a company to actually managing the company.
It is only then that you realise as a business leader that you alone are responsible, there is nowhere to hide or anyone to hide behind, and it is you who has to make the decisions and be responsible for the outcomes of those decisions too.
I had run an AIM-listed company previously, but in terms of scale, being appointed to run William Hill’s online business in 2008 was certainly most significant, especially with the success that followed.
What has been the greatest challenge you have faced as a business leader?
When I was at William Hill we had an incidence where a rumoured relocation of the business away from Tel Aviv [Israel is one of the top three online gaming centres in the world] saw a mass walkout of around 200 staff. If we hadn’t succeeded in getting people back to work that would have had serious consequences for the business.
But we did succeed. We literally worked night and day and although the stakes where incredibly high, achieving a successful resolution was in retrospect incredibly challenging and equally exciting – this sector is anything but boring and you really do need to be on your game!
Do such incidences help shape a person’s leadership capabilities?
Yes they do, in terms of providing a perspective that is. I have learned that as a leader I am relatively calm during a crisis having faced this and other significant challenges over the years – one of which was being unable to pay our own employees one month, which is an altogether different form of stress. There are always going to be challenges and the higher profile challenges I have had to face have given me a better perspective on what is most important.
What has been your greatest career success to date?
In terms of value creation I would say that my time at William Hill was certainly one, which I hope I will emulate at Rank. Of course there is also the element of having been in the right place at the right time, and at the time William Hill was at the top of its game and leaders in their market. I do think that my best is yet to come.
You recently announced the appointment of two new managing directors, one for Grosvenor Casinos and the other for Mecca Bingo. When succession planning, what do you look for in your senior managers and leaders?
It is crucial to get the right person in place.
For these two roles it was important that we placed individuals with a strong leadership background combined with having a strong analytical bent.
The casino and bingo sectors are maturing markets so we need people who can look at our businesses through a forensic lens and see how we can improve them. Part of that analysis will involve innovation and marketing – not in the sense of reinventing Grosvenor and Mecca, but in terms of bringing a fresh energy and perspective.
The gaming industry is worth an estimated £12.6 billion with online gaming revenues up 21% year-on-year, and bingo seeing a 4.9% increase in the year to September. How do you remain competitive and stay ahead of the curve against the marked rise of new entrants to the market?
Yes there are a number of new challengers but many of them are finding it tough, when you consider the high taxes and increased regulations. The industry has also seen a wave of M&A’s that have effectively created these ‘mega brands’, which are increasing their share of the market.
That is where we need to be and we will be looking to grow our own share of the market by driving synergies with companies that will enable us to add greater value, innovate and retain the entrepreneurial culture we have long maintained.
Henry Birch was interviewed for and on behalf of Cardiff Business Club by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, Managing Director at Clearly PR & Marketing Communications.
LMW would like to thank Cardiff Business Club for enabling us to reproduce this interview. You can view details of Cardiff Business Club’s next speaker here.